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LifestyleRetirement

Beware of scams during the holidays

For family members of aging loved ones, this is the season to be on guard. While scam artists operate all year long, they seem to work overtime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. New York State's Division of Consumer Protection says seniors are prime targets for "suspicious solicitations."

These requests for money take several forms, but these categories are among the most common:

IRS SCAM The senior gets a call from someone claiming to be an IRS agent, who says there is a past-due tax balance. The caller threatens the senior with arrest unless the debt is paid either by a Green Dot Money Card or a Western Union MoneyGram.

GRANDPARENT SCAM Phone callers pretend to be the senior's grandchild, saying they are in an emergency situation and need money quickly. The caller asks that the money be wired -- and not to tell the parents.

FREE GRANT SCAM The senior is told he or she is eligible for "a free government grant," but to claim the money, an upfront fee must be paid.

DECEASED SPOUSE DEBT The con artist contacts a recent widow or widower and says the deceased spouse ran up thousands of dollars in debt that must be paid.

"We see a new one every day," says Kai Stinchcombe, chief executive of True Link (truelinkfinancial.com), a financial-services company that monitors scams targeting the elderly. True Link's main product is a debit card that family members give to elderly loved ones to track and control their spending. The card can be set up to limit spending to a maximum amount per transaction. It also can prevent certain transactions from being approved, for instance funding wire transfers.

Stinchcombe has noticed a rise in scams that play off current events. For example, seniors on Medicare are wrongfully told they must sign up for an Obamacare health plan. The scammers typically ask for bank account information so they can enroll the senior in the plan.

In addition to the scams, seniors find themselves the target of legal but inappropriate solicitations. Some salesmen pressure seniors into buying expensive medical devices they may not need. And some who donate to a single charity find themselves inundated with requests from other organizations because charities often share donor lists. If the elderly person starts writing checks, even small ones, to several new charities, this can be a red flag.

"Somebody that was donating $50 a month to charity is now donating $50 a day to charity," Stinchcombe says. "One of the things we found is the small stuff is often a precursor to the big stuff."

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