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by: Tehila Mörtl
With most everyone focusing on holiday shopping, finding just the right gift for each recipient, all the details of special friend and family mealtimes and various other preparations, the winter holidays are a premium time for those intent on targeting innocent victims with a variety of scams and fraud. Therefore in the interest of helping to protect elders and their loved ones, Advise & Protect Senior Care Consultants believe it prudent to take time to review the most prevalent of scams and frauds being perpetrated this holiday season.
Outline of current holiday scams
· Data Breaches
Anyone who watches the news even if just occasionally no doubt remembers the 2013 Target holiday breach. Truth be told, an avalanche of such hacks has taken place and experts believe that even companies that don’t believe they have fallen victim simply have not discovered the breach yet. Given the risks, a survey of over 1,000 individuals by the TransUnion credit union revealed that over half of today’s consumers are concerned about identity theft as they well should be considering the holidays are prime time for cybercrime, identity theft and credit and debit card fraud. While paying with cash is ideal and the safest way to shop the reality is that most customers find it necessary to use credit cards for holiday shopping. In light of current concerns, we recommend that individuals consider maintaining one or two separate credit cards with a low balance designated just for holiday purchases. By doing so you run less risk of extensive charges should your account be hacked or if a retailer’s data is breached. Further, doing so allows for easier tracking of gift purchases, keeping these separate from regular charges. Another good option when shopping online is to pay for transactions using such services as PayPal.
· In-store Pricing Errors/Scams
Whether intentional or due to an employee overlooking price changes, there are some retailers that are notorious for advertising and/or marking one price and then, at the register, it rings up for a higher amount. Such is the case with a discount retailer not far from where I live. From past experiences, I have learned to pay close attention to the price of items being rung up and make sure the register reflects the same amount as shown on the sign or advertisement. No matter where you are shopping, it is always a good idea to at the very minimum spot check pricing and pay close attention to items that are supposed to be marked down.
· Short Change
Another situation whether intentional or not happens all too often. During this time of year cashiers are especially busy and, like all of us, can become distracted so, always check to ensure you have received the correct change prior to leaving the register.
The other means by which one can be short changed is much more devious. Typically the perpetrator will request change for a large bill then goes back and forth so often that the victim is caught off guard and loses track of what is going on. To make things worse, there is often an accomplice ensuring distraction. To avoid being had, have a plan before submitting payment and know how much change to expect. If another customer asks you for change, suggest that they go to the customer service desk for assistance.
With the cost of holiday cards and postage, e-cards are a great way to send out holiday greetings to everyone on your list plus, are excellent time and gas savers. One should be aware though that some of the sites offering such services contain malware that infects the user’s computer, tablet or phone when the link is clicked to view the greeting. Prior to opening any type of e-card first check the address from which the greeting originated and verify that it belongs to a legitimate, known, secure greeting company.
· Holiday Travel
Given the rate hikes during holiday season, most opt to go online in search of discounted air fares, accommodations, automobile rental and travel packages. This is all well and good; however, it is important to stick with established, reputable companies rather than risk losing your investment with a fly-by-night, fake travel site. Such businesses offer tremendous and often unbelievable deals on assorted travel related services. Beware though as they also use their sites to steal victim’s identities or make unauthorized debits from bank accounts and to credit cards. It is common practice among such scammers to require advance payment in full and often do not provide a phone number, e-mail address or other contact information.
· Counterfeit Gift Cards
If you’re like many others, you have at least one individual on your gift list who is difficult to shop for be it that they are hard to please, live at too great a distance to know they sizes or what-have-you. In those situations gift cards can be a fantastic solution plus, these can be sent via e-mail or, if you prefer to include in a card, they are certainly far less expensive to send through the mail. Unfortunately, fraudulent gift cards are a favorite among charlatans. While many sell the bogus cards online even more have been known to peruse gift card racks, writing down or electronically scanning the numbers right off the cards. Later they check online or call the toll-free number to see if the card has been activated and then drain all the funds.
To avoid the frustration, disappointment and embarrassment of giving a counterfeit or depleted gift card, never purchase from third-party websites but directly from the retailer, movie theater or restaurant and closely inspect the card for any sign of tampering (i.e. exposed PIN). Be sure to keep your proof of purchase. When buying in-store, opt for locations that keep their gift cards in a secure location, behind the counter.
· Online Retailers, also known as e-Tailers
Particularly during the holidays, there are no shortage of copycat websites posing as legitimate retailers. In fact, there are those whose site names are intentionally created to closely resemble those of large, well established retailers. To ensure you are shopping safely, check the name and web address closely for subtle differences. Using your favorite search engine type in merchant name followed by the word scam. This will bring up any results on current scams. Never click on a link from an unsolicited e-mail or social media site and be wary of any site offering merchandise that is sold out elsewhere or is deeply discounted.
Make certain the web address begins with https://. The “s” stands for secure. Look for a lock icon on the web address line and a trustmark on the home page. Choose payment option for credit card or a service like PayPal to help protect you against possible fraud.
· Account Smishing
One of the means by which cybercriminals drain bank accounts and max out credit cards is called smishing. This is done by the criminals contacting their intended victim stating that their subject’s account is in urgent need of attention to avoid being locked down, closed or suffering other dire consequences. The scammer sends a text message, e-mail or calls via phone posing as a bank or credit card company representative requesting such private information as username, passwords, verification of account number, etc. Rather than responding with information that could cause you serious problems, contact your bank or credit card company directly. If the information was requested through e-mail or text message, be prepared to provide this information as well. It is extremely important to remember than no reputable credit card company, banking or other financial institution will contact you expecting that personal and private information be divulged.
· Holiday Gift and Contest Scams – Smishing and Phishing
What sounds more inviting than a free gift or contest through which you can win luxury items like vacations, an automobile, electronic goods, etc.? When you see these just keep the old adage in mind, If it sounds too good to be true it probably is! Whether you are contacted by phone call via land line or cell phone, by e-mail or text message on your cell, remain wary of those offers that sound too good to be true particularly if it is not a contest you recall entering. This attempt to obtain your personal information is called smishing. Another example of this sort of scam are the e-mails offering prize checks or large gift cards in exchange for your personal information. In addition, links found on social media encouraging you to click here promising a free gift are more likely than not phishing schemes. What you are more likely to end up with is unwanted and dangerous malware infecting your device. By taking a moment to think before you act you are far less likely to fall victim to these schemes or others.
· Package Theft
According to InsuraceQuotes.com an estimated 23,000,000 American have had at least one parcel stolen from their doorstep. There are precautions you can take to reduce such risk. During the holidays and whenever I know that packages will be arriving, I leave a note on the front door instructing all postal delivery companies to either wait until someone answers to deliver the package or to have parcels left with a neighbor who will be home. Other options include having packages delivered to your office or a postal location such as the local UPS store. Also, don’t forget to set up tracking notifications. By using tracking numbers you can more easily identify where your package is any given day plus, you have confirmation should anything goes missing.
· Shipping Notification Scams
Stay aware of items that you have ordered and know from whom you will receive shipping notifications. When you receive an e-mail requesting shipping verification, remember that any company sending you merchandise should already have all the information they need. If there is a question, contact the retailer you ordered from directly and never give out personal information in response to an e-mail. Instead, check the e-mail address and sender looking for any spelling or grammatical errors and send a copy to your retailer.
An experienced pickpocket can lift your wallet or remove an item from your shopping bag without you ever being the wiser. Many times they will use the ploy of a supposed unintentional bump to distract you or those especially skilled need hardly any distraction at all. To protect your belongings, leave whatever personal information and cards you do not need during your shopping trip at home or concealed in the trunk of your car. Then, keep your wallet in a front pocket, preferably one that has a closure. If you are in a crowded area, keep a hand on your pocket as well. Ladies carrying a handbag should make sure they are using one that closes securely. Some, like myself, prefer to opt for a crossover bag that can be kept in front and are less likely to be pickpocketed. Keep your packages safe as well by carrying them in front of you or better yet, make regular trips to your car and lock packages securely, out of sight in your car trunk.
· Pet Scams
Popular throughout the year but even more so before and during the holidays is the idea of giving that special companion be it a pooch, kitten or other pet. Puppies are especially popular with gift givers and scammers alike. Cybercriminals have been known to create bogus websites representing themselves as breeders of purebred dogs. Often the photographs they send are stolen from websites of legitimate breeders. Then, after a price is agreed upon additional fees for such things as veterinarian charges, shipping and insurance will be required. Once payment is submitted, the victim will then be instructed to pick up their new pet at the airport. Unfortunately, upon arrival at the airport they learn that there is no pet to be found. To protect yourself from this sort of scam, get recommendations from independent veterinarians and check with the American Kennel Club for reports on the seller.
· Naming a Star
So this is the year you have chosen to give a unique and special gift. While naming a star after a loved one might sound like it fits the bill, the fact of the matter is that the International Astronomical Union is the only organization designated to name stars and does not offer this opportunity to the public. Therefore, the only thing one’s gets when going through some other agency or organization is a cheap plaque and not a real star.
· Fake Charities
For many, charity is synonymous with the holidays. Needless to say, those lacking in morals and concern for others less fortunate take advantage of the spirit of giving. Many use names, logos and an e-mail address that are almost identical to reputable charitable organizations. To avoid victimization, always verify the existence and identity of charities through charitynavigator.org and the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance prior to making a donation. Obtain the name, address, phone and other contact information along with written materials and find out what percentage of your donation actually goes to charitable programs. Never donate with cash or via wire transfer. Lastly, while extremely worthy causes, be wary of charities raising funds for first responders (i.e. police, firefighters, EMS). If you would like to make a donation to a first responder’s fund, call your local fire or police department for information.
· Tech Support Scams
Typically originating in India or Pakistan, most of these cybercriminals utilize U.S. VOIP phone numbers to make it appear they are an American based company. How this scam generally works is that an individual posing as a representative of a big name PC manufacturer or tech support company will contact the prospective victim under the guise that the individual’s computer is under immediate threat and requests remote access to remedy the problem. Once accessed, the scammer then infects the victim’s computer with malware or directs the user to a third-party website that introduces other damaging effects. The results of such activity include identity theft and need for further repairs. Damages ranging from $100 to $1,000 have been reported by victims of such scams. Should you have concerns about your computer, it is wiser to utilize an established, reliable, local computer repair service.
Mobile devices such a smartphones and tablets offer great ease of shopping from home or on the go, saving a tremendous amount of time and effort in the pursuit of the perfect gift. As convenient as these options are, it is important to remember that they also leave the door open to online scams.
· Hardly Holiday Minded Apps
Cybercriminals have been known to pass on malicious software such as malware through bogus apps from which they can steal such personal information as user names, passwords, credit and bank account information and even bank authorization codes, etc.
· Mobile SMS Scams
Be wary of premium rate texting services that result in you racking up hefty bills and introduce malware to your device. By using malware, criminals gain access to your usernames, passwords, banking and credit account information, etc. It is recommended that consumers update apps using official, trusted app stores and pay close attention to bills for unusual text message charges.
Steps to take if you have been victimized
· Contact local law enforcement
File a police report and make a record of the officer’s name, badge number and the assigned case number. This information will be vital in proving that charges were the result of a fraud or scam.
· Contact your bank and credit card company
If you have been a victim of identity theft or some other type of fraud or scam, contact the fraud department of each of your credit card companies and banking institutions. Provide each with the case number from your local law enforcement report. Many if not most credit card companies’ will close your account and reopen one with a new number then, issue a new credit card which can take approximately one to two weeks. Likewise, your bank will issue a new debit card. If it is urgent, ask for rush delivery and estimate date of arrival so you can be on the lookout for your new card.
· Contact all three credit reporting companies
This should be completed as soon as possible to avoid unauthorized credit cards, loans, credit lines, etc. being opened by the fraudster. Following are the credit reporting companies with contact information:
Experian (888) EXPERIAN= (888) 397-3742
Equifax (800) 525-6285
TranxUnion (800) 680-7289
· Document and Maintain Evidence
Along with the police report and case number, fully document the event and maintain records related to the suspected fraud or scam such as letters and e-mail solicitation, cancelled checks, cash, credit card, money order and cashier’s check receipts, bank statements, investment statements and medical and insurance statements.
· Contact the Fraud Watch Network Hotline
If you need assistance, call the Fraud Watch Network Hotline and speak with a trained AARP volunteer Fraud Fighter at (877) 908-3360.
· Contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s fraud unit
Call the Federal Bureau of Investigation or visit them online to report suspected fraud.
Having reviewed all of the above, some might be wonder why elders are often preferred targets for scams and fraud. There are a number of reasons which include:
· Availability as retired seniors are more likely to be home alone during the day.
· Isolation and loneliness makes one more vulnerable to friendly strangers.
· Illness or loss of mobility keeps an elder confined to their home and unable to tend to yard work or make home repairs; therefore, leaving them reliant on the kindness of others.
· Elders are more likely to own their own home and have substantial savings.
Steps to take in order to protect yourself and your elder from fraud and scams:
· Shred all identifying mail, prescription receipts and any financial documents not to be kept.
· Never share personal or private information over the phone or internet
· Register your home and cell number with the Do Not Call Registry.
· Post a No Solicitors sign on your front door and in front and side windows.
· Do not open the door to strangers.
· Arrange for a neighbor, friend or member of your house of worship to check in with you regularly.
· Contact the Better Business Bureau to check out all unknown business representatives, companies and charities.
Please remember it is vital for all consumers to exhibit great caution when making any type of purchase or charitable contribution.
If you are in need of help with senior care, money management, moving for seniors, elder law, estate management, medical equipment, home care, elder real estate sales or management, planning after life services, etc. please do not hesitate to call Advise & Protect Senior Care Consultants at 646-820-9202 so that we may aid in meeting your needs!