Published in Pawtucket Times on November 23, 2015
With just a little over 30 days left to Christmas, a newly released AARP Fraud Watch Network telephone poll finds that 70 percent of American consumers failed a quiz about how to protect themselves from common holiday scams. Many of the survey’s respondents, age 18 and over, say they are regularly engaging in risky behaviors which could put them at risk of being victimized by con artists during the approaching holidays..
The 26-page report, “Beware the Grinch: Consumers at Risk of Being Scammed During the Holidays,” details AARP’s random polling results of consumers about their knowledge of the most common scams occurring before holidays, including those related to charitable giving, gift cards, package deliveries, and use of public Wi-Fi. Seventy percent of the respondents were only able to answer correctly four or fewer questions out of a total of seven questions
“While most of us focus on family and friends during the holidays, fraudsters are zeroing in on our wallets and bank accounts,” warns Nancy LeaMond, Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer, AARP. “We’re encouraging consumers to elevate their awareness of some emerging and popular scams, and to also share the information with their families to help keep them safe this holiday season,” she says.
Prompted by the dismal survey results, AARP’s Fraud Watch Network has launched an education campaign, including a new web page, www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud/fraud-watch-network, specifically designed to educate the public about the top five holiday scams:
According to the National Philanthropic Trust, in 2015 Americans gave $358 billion dollars to charity. Government officials who regulate nonprofit charities and fundraisers say that while most charities are legitimate, there are many fundraisers, especially telemarketers, who keep 85-90% of the money they raise.
AARP’s survey finds that 70 percent of the respondents who donated to a charity or fundraiser in the past 12 months did so without even asking any questions about how that donation would be spent, and 60 percent made donations without verifying that the charity groups were legally authorized to raise money in their state. .
The pollsters say that about a third of the respondents admitted that they don’t know (15%) or aren’t sure (18%) that, in most states, professional fundraisers must be registered with the government and report how much funds they raise and how much goes to the charitable purpose. Less than one in ten (8%) could correctly name the government agency they should contact to verify the legitimacy of the charity or fundraiser (the correct answer: Office of the State Secretary).
Fraud experts warn that scammers sometimes hit store gift card racks, secretly write down or electronically scan the numbers off the cards, then check online or call the toll-free number to see if someone has bought the cards and activated them. As soon as a card is active, the scammers drain the funds.
Fifty-eight percent of AARP’s survey respondents say they plan to buy gift cards from a rack at a big box store, pharmacy or grocery store this holiday season for gifts. Only 54 percent knew that the gift cards purchased from a gift card rack at retail stores are “not safe” from hackers or thieves than gift cards purchased online.
Pull Out that Credit Card
The AARP survey findings note that almost two-thirds of the holiday shoppers surveyed (64%) say they will buy holiday gifts this year using a debit card. Consumer protection experts advise using credit cards rather than debit cards for most purchases, to better protect the buyer from fraud and theft. With credit cards, you are financially liable for only up to $50 of fraudulent use. But with a lost or stolen debit card, the scam can be more costly and hit you hard in your pocketbook
Surf Safely on Public Wi-Fi
The survey findings found that holiday shoppers incorrectly believe that it is safe to access “sensitive” financial information via a free Wi-Fi network. About 52 percent of internet users in this survey say they will use free public Wi-Fi in making purchases or to do their banking. Many of them, while using public Wi-Fi, will make purchases (42%), access their bank accounts (28%), and check their credit card accounts (16%).
Package Signoffs Reduce Scams
The AARP survey findings indicate that over 40 percent of holiday shoppers are unaware that package delivery companies are not responsible for stolen packages that are left at your front door without requiring a delivery signature. Seventy nine percent of the respondents claim that they ship packages to friends without requiring a signature at least some of the time. Seventy-three percent indicate that they have received home deliveries without having to provide a signature “some” or “all of the time.”
AARP Fraud Watch Protects Consumers
In Rhode Island, AARP has deployed a corps of volunteers who travel around the Ocean State, with a presentation introducing the Fraud Watch Network and offering attendees free copies of “The Con Artist’s Playbook, a brochure written by former con artists, revealing their techniques they use to steal identities. Fraud Watch was AARP’s central theme at last summer’s tournament week at the Newport-based International Tennis Hall of Fame and volunteers were enrolling people as recently as last week at a Providence Bruins game. To date, more than 1,200 Rhode Islanders have signed up for the free fraud alert this year.
“Con artists think they can bully people into forking over their hard-earned money,” AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell said. “That’s why today, we’re turning the tables on them and arming Rhode Islanders with the information they need. This require constant vigilance, and the upcoming holiday season is a time when con artists up their game,” she says.
Connell notes that groups of a dozen or more can request a Fraud Watch presentation by calling the AARP state office at 401-248-2671. In 2016, AARP wants to train more volunteers to present Fraud Watch in their communities and to point people to AARP resources designed to combat fraud.
People are more aware of telephone and online scams than ever before,” Connell said. “But the con artists manage to keep one step ahead, inventing new and disarming ways to punch people’s emotional buttons and lead them to a place where they make bad and sometime terribly costly decisions.”
Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin whose office works to alerts and educate consumers about the latest scams making their way through Rhode Island noted that despite the news of increased scams during the holidays, a little perspective is important, “the true meaning of Christmas is about celebrating family and friends and being thankful for what we have.”