Elder abuse and scams can worsen during the holidays. How to protect yourself.

Elder abuse comes in several forms, but attempting to rip off seniors financially is the big one. 

Adults 60 and older reported losses of $1.6 billion to scams in 2022, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. The true figure is likely considerably higher given that many rip-offs are never reported.

And while this is a year-round problem, this time of year scams can be particularly frequent. Holiday hucksters are good at tugging on heartstrings to get seniors to cough up money and/or personal data; such rip-offs can leave victims with little more than a lump of coal in their stocking. 

“Falling prey to financial abuse can have dire consequences for anyone, but our older population is particularly susceptible,” says Cassandra Happe of WalletHub, a financial-services firm which is out with a study on elder abuse. “Abuse can greatly impact their ability to afford basic necessities, especially since many seniors are on a fixed income.” 

Read: ‘Tis the season — for scams. What older Americans need to watch out for this month.

Here are three common scams to watch out for as the year winds down: 

  • Appeals from bogus charities pushing for year-end, tax-deductible donations. Never give to anyone asking you for money over the phone. Call the charity directly or visit their website to donate — after confirming via GuideStar or Charity Navigator whether the charity is legitimate.

  • The “grandparent scam” involves someone calling, pretending to be a grandchild and asking for money or gift cards “to buy gifts.” How would a senior fall for this? Often the caller might have just enough info about the child to make it seem legit. Also, seniors who are hard of hearing or don’t speak with their grandchildren on a regular basis might not recognize the voice and be fooled. The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers some good tips on how to thwart scams directed at grandparents.

  • Online shopping rip-offs. AgeRight.org points out that people who didn’t grow up shopping online might not know what red flags to watch out for—and can thus be vulnerable to cyber shopping scams. Many involve “phishing” emails to get folks to give up personal info and/or credit card data. It offers two good bits of advice: Never click on any links in an email from an unfamiliar source. And, if it’s too good to be true, it usually is. Don’t believe emails that promote wildly steep discounts. 

Taking sensible precautions as outlined above can help stop the crooks. But geography does too. WalletHub’s study says some states have pretty good elder abuse protections in place—but others have some work to do. 

Read: That may not be your daughter crying on the phone. Here’s what to know about AI-powered scams.

The study says Wisconsin has the best elder-abuse protections in the country, followed by Massachusetts, Ohio, Virginia, and Kentucky. At the other end of the spectrum, it claims California, Utah, Montana, South Carolina and New Jersey tag behind. To determine these rankings, it studied three dynamics: “the prevalence of elder abuse, resources for prevention and assistance, and the quality of those elder-abuse protections.”

Wisconsin topped the list as the best state for elder-abuse protections, because of what WalletHub calls the Badger state’s “high numbers of eldercare organizations and services,” backed by significant investment in elder-abuse prevention programs. The largest state, California, ranked last overall because of what WalletHub called a pervasiveness of elder abuse combined with a below average level of spending on prevention. Read about your state and more on WalletHub’s methodology.  

Some states, meanwhile, are beefing up law enforcement around elder abuse issues. John C. Craft, an associate professor of law at Alabama’s Faulkner University, says lawmakers in the Yellowhammer State have acted to criminalize elder abuse and financial exploitation so that offenders are held accountable. He thinks something else that could help, not just in Alabama but nationwide, is to step up early interventions to thwart elder abuse at the earliest stage. “This can be accomplished,” he writes, “with increased reporting by medical, financial, and other professionals. This can also be accomplished with better access to the legal system for victims of abuse.”

How can financial elder abuse be spotted? Here are three of the more common signs, WalletHub says: 

  • Unusual bank or credit card activity. “Be vigilant for any unexpected or abrupt alterations in the financial circumstances of an elderly individual, like substantial withdrawals, transfers, or expenditures,” it says adding “Be mindful of any irregular ATM usage or unfamiliar purchases.” 

  • Be cautious of new or unfamiliar “friends.” Watch out if an elderly person has recently befriended someone who shows an unusual interest in their finances or property. “This behavior could indicate that the new acquaintance has malicious intentions,” WalletHub says. “Some scammers take advantage of the elderly person’s kind nature and willingness to make new friends to gain their trust, which they can then use as a means to exploit them financially.

  • Changes in behavior: Be on the lookout for changes by older individuals, such as sudden fearfulness, anxiety, or secretiveness regarding their finances. “Perpetrators of financial fraud often employ tactics that isolate vulnerable individuals from their social support networks, allowing them to maintain control over their victims,” WalletHub says. “If an older adult seems to be avoiding family and friends or is hesitant to discuss their financial situation, it may be indicative of elder financial abuse.”

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