SANTA'S NAUGHTY LIST: Holiday frauds and scams to avoid

Know what’s up so you’re not who’s next!

This holiday season, many people will forego the shopping malls and outlets stores to pick out gifts from their favorite online sites in the convenience of their home. 

However, this time of year, some extra attention should be paid to protect yourself and loved ones from becoming a victim of a scam or fraud.

Locally, the Savannah Police Department (SPD) estimates a billion dollars is lost each year through all fraud issues.

Sergeant Jeremy Henry, Supervisor of the SPD Financial Crimes Unit said, “When people encounter anything that doesn’t feel right… the best thing to do is hang up. If it’s too good to be true, it most likely is.”

Sgt. Henry added, “If it’s not a utility, credit card, or something you’re familiar with or expecting…you are under no obligation to engage. Hang up [the phone]”

Chatham County Police Department Neighborhood Liaison Officer Esquina White, agreed. 

“When these calls come in, we encourage folks to use the proper selection on your phone to block/report/silence the phone.”

“For some,” officer White continued, “disconnecting is easier said than done, particularly senior citizens and/or older family members who may not understand they’re being scammed and are more trustworthy.”

Patti Lyons, president of Senior Citizens, Inc., a nonprofit organization in Savannah and coastal Georgia stated, “The FBI estimates that older adults lose more than $3 billion each year to scammers. Some red flags senior citizens and their adult children should look out for include phone calls asking for money, unusual credit card charges, large, unexpected bank withdrawals, and unfamiliar debts on credit reports.”

Senior citizens are especially vulnerable because criminals believe they have significant savings sitting untapped in their accounts, Lyons added.

“It’s not just wealthy older adults who are targets, but those who are low-income,” she said. “Widows who may not have dealt with finances are often targeted, as are seniors who are unfamiliar with the internet. In addition, scams targeting the elderly often take advantage of the fact an older adult may be suffering from memory or dementia issues.”

Lyons said because many adult children live out of town or out of state, this makes their older parents “easier prey for scammers.”

“Shaming, blaming, and arguing is not going to end well,” she said. “Listen and have conversations. Explain to an elderly parent that they cannot win a contest they didn’t enter. Remind them that government agencies don’t make unsolicited phone calls and will never ask for personal information because they already have your information on file.”

Unfortunately, older citizens aren’t the only ones who fall victim to scams and/or frauds. Wesley Olliff, Market President at Colony Bank in Savannah agrees that scams and fraud occur year-round, but everyone—regardless of age or technical experience—should be especially careful over the holidays.

“When receiving a text message or phone call from what appears to be your bank, be very wary,” Olliff said. “It would be very uncommon for a bank to initiate a text or phone call asking for your PIN (personal identification number), Social Security number, date of birth, or other personal credentials related to your password or security questions.

Olliff noted, “These are fair questions for your banking institution to ask in order to verify your information. However, that is when they are on the receiving end of your phone call.”

Other red flags Olliff said to be on the lookout for in texts and emails would be “misspelling of words or names, a sense of urgency concerning the movement of funds, or random messages from your bank asking you to download an attachment or click a link.”

He advises his banking customers to protect themselves the following ways:

Monitor your account activity on a daily basis through online or mobile banking.

Take advantage of fraud preventions services most banks offer, such as account alerts or CardCommand apps that allow you to receive automatic alerts for suspicious activity and set controls for debit or credit card usage.

Follow protocols set forth by the applicable third-party platforms that facilitate the consumer-to-consumer business when conducting those transactions.

Be extremely careful when wiring funds and take the appropriate measures/extra steps to ensure they are going to the intended destination.

Officer White stressed, “One of the major things to watch out for—throughout the year, but more so during the busy holiday season—is package deliveries and porch pirates.”

She said, “Deliveries create the opportunity for someone to take a package from your property if they see it unattended. To prevent that, we encourage you to have deliveries sent to a location where someone will be available to accept it. If not, schedule deliveries for a specific time when you’re home or arrange to pick up packages directly from delivery service locations.”

Like his contemporaries monitoring this issue, Sgt. Henry agreed scams aren’t limited to just the holidays, rather, “They rotate throughout a cycle…the kidnapping scam, the social security scam, the warrant for your arrest scam, Georgia Power scam…they’ve been around for a while. You always have to look out for things that seem unusual.”

One of the most important factors Sgt. Henry wanted to share was how these scammers play off emotion. 

“They’re looking for a fear-based reaction. They threaten and terrify you so you’ll go get whatever gift cards or prepaid cards they’re asking for. Don’t give in to the fear. If they claim to be an agency or bank, hang up and call that vendor directly.”

Here are a couple of more emotionally laced scams Sgt. Henry said exacts fear in the recipient:

Warrant scam where a threatening phone call informs you there is a warrant out for your arrest, but you can avoid jail time by purchasing a large amount of gift or prepaid cards and giving them the information. No government entity will call making this demand.

Grandparent scheme where someone calls the elderly person impersonating their grandchild asking for help because they’ve been arrested or in a car accident and need money without their parents’ knowledge. 

Romance scam and Lottery scam often intertwine. It begins when someone gets called about winning the lottery and afterward the person calling or emailing suddenly begins a personal connection, opening up, promising romance. Once an emotional attachment has been formed, it’s hard to convince someone they’re being scammed. The person usually promises to take them away, rescue them from their lives. Sadly, this doesn’t happen to just one demographic. It happens to people in their 20s all the way up to the elderly.

Sgt. Henry stressed, “When any of these situations occur to you or someone you know, take a break. Don’t isolate yourself and break the communication cycle. Talk to someone else and let them know what’s going on.”

The police watch area scams and will inform the public appropriately through social media, media, and other outlets, if necessary, Sgt. Henry said. 

He added, “The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) tracks a lot of this information nationwide and accepts reports on any occurrence someone may have experienced. Reports can be filed online at FTC.gov. Also, the Internet Crime Center tracks information, as well at IC3.gov. IdentityTheft.org is a great resource people can use to read up about reporting and cleaning up the mess caused by it. Be sure to report it to your local police, as well,” he finished.

The sergeant added some eye-opening advice. 

“When using apps on your phone, always watch for and read the fine print for anything you sign up for. Most of them will say if fraud or scams happen while using their app, you’re on your own. If scams happen on your debit or credit card, go through your bank or credit card institution to help you through it.”

Finally, he said, “When purchasing on the internet, always check the URL/address and make sure financial transactions are conducted through a secure website. Just be careful and be smart.”

Patty Lyons agreed and offered senior citizens important advice. 

“The old adage is true: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Under no circumstances should you give out personal, credit card, or bank information over the phone or in an email. If someone contacts you asking for money to pay off a debt or as a gift for charity, immediately tell your children or any other trusted friend who can take action.”

“Fraud often goes unreported and scams can be difficult to prosecute, but they can be devastating to so many older adults. It is much easier to fall victim to a scam than you may think, and there is no reason to be embarrassed. Scams targeting older adults should be reported to Adult Protective Services as well as your local police. If you receive a call from someone claiming to represent a government agency, you should report it to that agency as well. If you believe your credit card or banking information is compromised, contact the bank immediately. Senior Citizens, Inc. can also provide a trusted and local resource: our Care Navigators are social workers who specialize in care for older adults and are trained in handling suspected cases of elder abuse, neglect, or financial exploitation,” Lyons said.

“When someone you know or love is scammed, contact the victim’s banking institution immediately, as well as the company the package was ordered from,” Officer White said. “We’ve found that door cameras and similar devices are beginning to prove effective.”

Both Sgt. Henry and Officer White warn of crimes of opportunity.

“While people are out shopping and even once they get home, I cannot stress how important it is not to leave things in your car,” Officer White said. “It’s a crime of opportunity. If someone sees a gift or groceries or boxes in a car, they’ll take that opportunity. Remove your valuables and lock your car.”

“It is just as important to continue to be smart following the holidays,” Sgt. Henry said. “Try not to put out all of your boxes and packaging that shows off your nice, new electronics and appliances. Break the boxes down, recycle them, or wait until the next week to toss out.”


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