November 16, 2020

2020 has been an unusual year, to say the least — and the holiday season will be no different! Online giving has been growing year over year. And with more people staying home due to COVID-19 restrictions, virtual shopping and donating are sure to be more popular than ever this winter. Unfortunately, that means more people will be vulnerable to the very real threat of holiday scams and fraud — especially Chicago-area seniors. 

Holiday Scams and Fraud: Are Seniors At Risk?

During the festive winter months, scammers and con artists have been known to take advantage of people’s busy schedules and generous attitudes. Seniors are a particularly common target for fraudsters, especially during the holidays. With more older adults alone and conducting their business online this year, that makes the risk of falling victim to a scam or fraud even greater than usual. 

As the FBI explains in its “Fraud Against Seniors” report, elderly adults are often “attractive to con artists” because of their financial health. Elderly citizens are more likely to have a nest egg, to own their own home, and to have excellent credit. Meanwhile, senior citizens are largely from a generation that is known for being polite, trusting, and generous, which can make them more susceptible to pressuring phone calls and phony emails, according to the FBI. Seniors are often lonely and therefore more susceptible to scams, because they like to make connections to anyone out there.  Sometimes they just want someone to talk to on the phone – and scammers know this.

As a result? It is estimated that seniors are cheated out of $3 billion each year by scammers and con artists. 

As an older adult getting ready to make the most of the holiday season, or a family caregiver hoping to help protect an elderly loved one, it’s important to be wary — and remain on the lookout for any grinches waiting in the shadows to spoil the season. 

With a little bit of knowledge and planning, you and your loved ones can know what telltale signs to watch out for, and what steps you can take to avoid getting swindled. 

Let’s explore some of the most common types of holiday-themed scams and fraud aimed at seniors to expect as we wind down 2020:

Grandparent Scams

The imposter scam, sometimes called the “grandparent” scam, is one of the most common types of fraud targeting seniors. As the Better Business Bureau (BBB) explains:

“This ‘family emergency’ scam happens when someone calls pretending to be or represent a family member, most frequently a grandchild. They will scare the call recipient into believing a relative has been in an accident or arrested while out of town and they will request money be sent ASAP to help.’

Often, this scam is meant to pull on a senior’s heartstrings, with the scammer spinning an elaborate story designed to convince a senior to act quickly, believing that they’re doing a good deed for a loved one in need. 

What can you do to stop it? If a senior gets a call out of the blue claiming to be from a family member, help them make contact with that family member directly, preferably over the phone, in order to verify the story. What’s more, be on the lookout for any message that asks for you to wire money, purchase and ship gift cards, or send cash directly. As the Federal Trade Commision (FTC) has explained, these are the methods by which scammers are most likely to make you pay, since they are hard to trace and often impossible to stop or reverse. 

Online Shopping Scams

As Commerce Bank has noted

“During the holidays, everyone is on the lookout for good shopping deals. But it’s important to be hypervigilant and cautious when something seems too good to be true. Scammers use compelling – but fake – offers to lure people into sharing information or clicking a link that downloads malware on their computer.”

This is particularly true this year! As Chicago’s own WGN has noted, online shopping scams have comprised 64% of all scams with a monetary loss so far in 2020 — up from just 13% as recently as 2015.

During this socially distanced holiday season, ecommerce and online shopping scams might take many different forms. In some cases, shoppers may be directed to an entirely phony website, offering “too good to be true” deals as a way of securing the consumer’s personal information. 

In other events, shoppers may receive emails promising discounts or coupon codes, complete with links or attachments that download identity-stealing viruses. Some websites may offer a “free trial” for a product or service, which requires a user to input their credit or debit card number. 

In yet another variation of the scheme, savvy scammers may track your online purchases, and then send a followup requesting information due to an alleged “problem with your purchase” or delivery issue. 

To avoid falling victim to a cybershopping scam, it helps to offer your senior loved one — and yourself — a refresher course on online safety. Be wary of any sites offering extremely deep discounts, and research company names and links with consumer protection experts, such as the BBB. Don’t click on any emails or links that come from a source that you do not know and trust. Never give out sensitive personal information online, and be suspicious of anyone who tries to get in contact out of the blue. You may also want to help your senior loved one get on the national “Do Not Call” registry, and turn up the spam filters and security features on their email account and web browser, respectively. 

Charity Scams

During the holiday season, many of us dig deep and give out gifts and donations to the charities that matter most to us. Many con artists and scammers are lurking out there, however, just waiting to take advantage of seniors’ generosity. As the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) explains, the holiday season comes with a:

“…predictable increase in false or imposter charities, which sound identical to the real ones. The pitch is wrapped in sympathy inducing requests for year-end, tax-deductible holiday donations. These grinches stand ready to take your credit card or check routing information and charge you for bogus Nutcracker ballet tickets, or a holiday charity fundraising event.

Charity scams come in many forms. According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), scammers may “impersonate charities to get money or private information from well-meaning consumers,” including setting up fake websites that mimic legitimate charities.

Encourage seniors to be wary of any organization requesting money or information, especially if that alleged charity calls or emails out of the blue. For calls or requests that claim to be coming from an established organization, the CFPB encourages consumers to “look up the number of the organization independently and verify the claim before sending money.” 

Don’t be afraid to ask for detailed information about the charity, including name, address, and telephone number, and then reach out to the charity directly. The real organization should be able to tell you if they have authorized someone to make solicitations on their behalf. 

Similarly, the NCOA encourages would-be givers to use the IRS’s tax exempt organization search tool, or look for an organization’s charity using legitimate resources such as Guidestar and Charity Navigator.

Social Security and IRS Scams

Knowing that people are busy and preoccupied as the year draws to a close, many scammers use the winter months to trot out high-pressure “spoofing” attempts. As the NCOA describes it: 

“There’s been a significant uptick in fraudulent telephone calls from people claiming to represent the Social Security Administration (SSA). In them, unknown callers threaten victims that they face arrest or other legal action if they fail to call a provided phone number or press the number indicated in the message to address the issue. Sometimes the scammers switch tactics and say that they want to help an individual activate a suspended Social Security number.

In a similar ruse, scammers may pose as the IRS, with “a grinch on the phone threatening an elder with being arrested and spending the holidays in jail for unpaid taxes or a fake debt,” according to the CFPB. 

Remind your senior loved ones to be incredibly skeptical of any call or letter claiming to be from a government agency. As the CFPB explains:

 “The IRS will neither call to demand immediate payment, nor call without first mailing a bill. And, the IRS does not require you to use a specific payment method such as a prepaid debit card nor will they threaten you with arrest for not paying.”

Similarly, the NCOA reminds seniors that “Social Security rarely contacts persons by phone unless you have ongoing business with them and they never make threats about arrest or legal action.”

Making the Holidays Healthier, Happier, and Safer for Chicago’s Seniors 

Helping your senior loved one watch out for the very real risk of scams and fraud is just one way to make the holiday season easier. With the hustle and bustle of the winter months fast approaching, don’t forget to look into other ways to make this special season even brighter and more enjoyable for your older loved ones. 

A professional caregiver or companion can be an invaluable help around the holidays, stepping in and providing valuable support by:

Do you have an elderly family member who could benefit from some additional companionship and care at this time of the year? We’d be happy to help out in any way we can!

Here at Companions for Seniors, our mission is to provide Chicago-area seniors with a higher quality of life, while also offering respite and peace of mind for those family caregivers who might need some support. 

Our trained and bonded Companions help stimulate our clients physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, empowering them to live an active and enriched lifestyle. We’re locally owned in the Chicago area, with clients in the city and suburbs. Get in touch online or give us a call at 866-910-9020 whenever you’d like to get the conversation started!