Get-togethers provide a great opportunity to be proactive.

Will you be at Grandma’s house during the holidays? Millions of Americans will; it’s the biggest holiday travel time of the entire year.

When you get there, chances are you’ll see relatives — parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins — you might not have seen in a while. Thus, the holidays offer a great opportunity for you to snoop around a little.

Sounds creepy, but this is important. I want you to look for signs that Grandma might be involved in dubious financial transactions. I say this because American seniors are losing $36.5 billion every year to fraud and other forms of exploitation, according to the 2015 True Link Report on Elder Financial Abuse. About 10% of those over age 60 experience some form of financial exploitation yearly — from con artists to predatory marketing by retailers to shady charities trying to cash in on people’s generous holiday spirit.

And the highest portion of seniors’ losses — about $17 billion a year — is caused by deceptive but technically legal tactics that take advantage of seniors, says the report.

Much of the abuse goes unreported because many seniors are too embarrassed to admit that they’ve been duped. A single incident can even be repeated, because once Mom and Dad fall victim to one scam, they can get on lists that subject them to others.

So here are six signs I want you to look for while you’re visiting Grandma this holiday season:

  1. Missing money. Look at the bills that are lying around in plain sight. Does it appear that many are unpaid? Do you see extra credit cards — more than your elders would normally have? Ask about their gift plans for this season — who’s on their list? You expect friends and family to be on it, but are they planning gifts to people or charities that aren’t familiar to you? Are they giving dramatically less overall this year or dramatically more? If anything seems suspicious or out of the ordinary, start asking questions.
  1. Unusual telephone calls. While you’re there for three or four days, does the telephone ring a lot? Who’s calling? Is it other relatives — or telemarketers? Once crooks find a viable target, calls often come nonstop — even if your folks are on a Do Not Call list. Every one of those calls is a financial mishap waiting to happen. Warn your folks about it, and teach them that it’s OK to hang up on strangers who call. (Our elders were the first to use telephones, and they were raised to be polite and gracious when using that newfangled device. Often telephone marketers use these traits against them.)
  1. New friends. Many seniors feel lonely or isolated — and con artists, malicious caregivers and predatory telemarketers work hard to get your elders talking. The more the crooks and scammers can build a trusting relationship, the more likely they are to get their hands on some of your elders’ cash. If someone is suddenly spending a lot of time with her, find out who that person is and what the relationship is. This is another reason why you need to quickly review their bank and credit card statements.
  1. Conversational clues. If Mom or Grandma says something that doesn’t quite make sense, don’t ignore it. If she mentions a grandson’s trip to Mexico, you might think to yourself, “Oh, she must have meant Florida and got confused.” However, she could have fallen victim to the current “grandparent scam,” in which crooks pose as a relative who’s in jail overseas and desperately needs money immediately. Unsuspecting elders have wired tens of millions of dollars in these frauds
  2. Unusual gifts. Deceptive merchants often use gifts for family members as bait for financial entrapment. They might offer four of something for the price of one as part of a misleading sales pitch.


So if your parents or grandparents start handing out identical items to several people, they might have fallen victim to this. In another popular scam, someone tells the senior that he or she has won a lottery or sweepstakes (which might include an extra inducement, such as an exciting family trip abroad) — and all they have to do is pay an upfront fee to claim the “prize” that doesn’t exist.

Secrecy. Seniors who realize they’ve been scammed often feel fear or shame. If they don’t want to talk about money anymore, that’s exactly the time you should be talking to them about it.

You’ll probably never have a better opportunity than holiday times to discuss these issues. You’ll probably have some unstructured time hanging around in the kitchen, living room and rec room to talk quietly, casually and confidentially.

And if you really want to have fun, start the conversation yourself — then watch everyone’s reactions. If you’re struggling to bring up these issues at any time, just blame me.

May your holidays be wonderful!

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