senior woman answering smart phone with man in background

The holiday season often brings families together, but for Canadian seniors who live alone or far away from their relatives, it's also the season where opportunistic scam artists take advantage of the elderly.

Sixty-seven percent of suspected senior abuse goes unreported, according to the Canadian Bankers Association in 2015.

Leanne Kaufman, head of RBC Estate & Trust Services and president and CEO of Royal Trust Corporation of Canada and The Royal Trust Company, says elder financial fraud and scams happen year-round but the holidays have a tendency to create more favourable conditions for con artists.

“People prey on the emotions of the season," she says. Some scams are more involved and sophisticated; others are quick schemes relying on surreptitious emails, phone calls or texts. Our increasing digital footprint is a gateway for scam artists who peruse dating sites, social media, classified ads and obituaries, gathering information and finding their victims.

“Seniors are particularly vulnerable around the holidays because they're (sometimes) lonely," says Tracey Jonasson, regional vice president of western Canada for RBC Wealth Management Estate & Trust Services. And that alienation and yearning for companionship can be co-opted by con artists.

One of the best defences is being prepared and aware of common scams:

Fake e-tailers

The holiday shopping season also creates an opportunity for scam artists to take advantage of anyone unfamiliar with the nuances of e-commerce. The favoured method is often fake mass marketing where bots are used to send emails out to large swaths of people under the guise of a legitimate retailer offering online deals. It could also be fake shipping notification scams for products you didn't purchase. Often, clicking on these deals will download malware or a virus onto your computer.

Another scheme takes advantage of the holiday buzz around big name brands and offering the products at discounted prices. Fraudsters set up “spoof" websites that imitate the legitimate website, and send low quality goods without the named brand or certification or worse, they steal your credit card information.

In 2016, fraudsters duped 5,527 Canadians over the age of 60 with mass marketing fraud, resulting in a loss of more than $27.2 million, says Nancy Cahill, acting call centre and intake unit manager at the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC).

Don't get duped:

Before you click a link in your email, visit the retailer's official website and make sure the deal exists. If you're wondering if a shipping notification matches a product you actually ordered, find the brand or shipping company's official customer service line and call to track your package. When shopping online, ensure a website has the word "Secure" with a lock logo and “https" at the start of the address — this will ensure your information is being encrypted. Consider shopping online with Visa gift cards to avoid giving out your personal Visa information.

Romance scams

These events typically revolve around the thief building a relationship with the client, often over a long period. According to the CAFC, there were 203 cases of romance scams amongst Canadians over the age of 60 reported in 2016, with the seniors losing over $8.8 million.

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In many cases the relationships begin online, through social media or dating websites. It could seem sweet and innocent at first, with exchanges of emails, maybe even texts or phone calls, but eventually could end with an ask for money to help someone in need.

Jonasson points to a case she encountered where a client in Edmonton hired a handyman to look after things around the house. As the relationship progressed he moved into the basement and, eventually, they started to become more intimate despite the 40-year age gap, says Jonasson. Shortly thereafter, he took her into the bank and had his name added to her accounts so they were jointly held.

“She got sick so he had to take her to the doctor and they saw some red flags," explains Jonasson. The doctor assessed the woman's cognitive abilities and she scored low, so they contacted RBC Estate & Trust Services, her attorney for property. When Jonasson and her team began managing the client's affairs, they quickly realised the magnitude of the situation. “He'd bought himself a new truck and was dipping into her money — it was very tragic," says Jonasson. “He was charged with theft – the sad part was it had gone on for so long."

Don't get duped:

The holidays can sometimes invoke a need for companionship in the elderly. If you or your loved one is involved in a new romance, be wary if it begins online and seems to accelerate quickly, with the person professing an intense love early in the relationship. Watch for red flags and never send banking information or offer to process any form of payment from someone you do not know.

Elaine Blades, a senior manager of Estate & Trust Services with RBC Wealth Management says: “You can't protect yourself from everything but if you have your affairs organized and the right person appointed as your attorney for property, that can go a long way."

Grandparents scam

The “Grandparents scam" (often referred to as the “Emergency scam") is a particularly nefarious ruse preying on seniors. Typically, the con artist will call claiming to be one of the senior's grandchildren. They may not say their name until the grandparent does, but they will say they're in trouble — often a car accident, stuck in a foreign country, or in jail — and claim they need money immediately. Often, they'll request the money be sent through a money-transfer company like Western Union or Money Gram.

“I know somebody who fell prey to that; the names were very believable for the woman because she had recently lost her husband and the scam artist had accessed the obituary and knew the names of the grandchildren," says Kaufman. The woman questioned the voice on the other end of the phone but the con artist was able to convince her that he had a cold and was indeed her grandson. “(Eventually) she did wire him the money."

Don't get duped:

It can be a scary situation to get a call from a grandchild in distress, and that's what the con artists prey on: your good nature and willingness to help a loved one in a pinch. But knowing there's potential that it's a scam, take a moment to calm yourself. Tell them you need to make a call and you'll get back to them as soon as possible. Then get off the phone and reach out to another family member or even the person who supposedly just called you to verify the claims.

“I don't think it would hurt to ask a question only that person would know the answer to… if they really are that person they're not going to be offended," adds Kaufman.

Last-minute trip scam

Winter wanderlust has also proven to be a useful tool with con artists targeting Canadians using phoney last-minute getaway deals. A rash of travel agency scams in Quebec caught the attention of authorities last February. Scam artists pretending to be local travel agencies or well-known vacation companies like Sunwing, Air Transat or Air Canada Vactions were contacting victims with last-minute getaway offers for deals such as a $2,000 Caribbean vacation for $500. The victims were asked to pay upfront, usually with cash.

Unbeknownst to them, the fraudsters were booking the trips for regular prices using other people's stolen credit card information and pocketing the cash. In some cases, the victims would go on the trip without ever knowing it was paid for by someone else but in other cases they'd arrive at the airport only to realize the trip has been cancelled and they were out $500 or more.

Don't get duped:

If you get a call from a vacation package company offering last-minute deals for seniors, watch for red flags. Typically a tour company is not going to ask for payment in cash. If it sounds like an unrealistic offer, reach out to the travel company through their official line to see if it's legitimate or not.

And check your credit card statement for suspicious transactions, cautions Blades. “(Scam artists) tend to do these things at this time of year because people are using their cards more and there's less chance they'll notice."

Phoney charities

Giving goes hand-in-hand with the holidays and scam artists know it — that's why the phoney charity scam works so well. According to the CAFC: “The end of the year is the peak season for legitimate charities to ask for donations, but it is also the peak season for bogus charities to do the same."

With a lot of these scams, you may receive a call from a con artist masquerading as a charity, often with a similar name to a legitimate or respected foundation. In some cases, the caller may thank you for a pledge you don't remember making, or may come as a canvasser pressuring you to donate at your front door using cash or your personal banking information.

Don't get duped:

It's easy for scam artists to fake credentials or mask their phone number while calling. If it's a charity you haven't heard of, tell them you want to do your research before giving — any reputable charity will respect your need to verify their details. The best way to donate is to use official channels through charity websites. CanadaHelps provides a safe forum for donating and verifying a charity. In cases where you'd like to establish longer-term philanthropic efforts while retaining control of where your money goes, you can use a vessel like a donor-advised fund. Never give cash to someone on the street or over the phone who can't prove who they are.

'Tis the season for scams

The golden rule stands true whether it's the holidays or any other time of the year: if it's too good to be true, it probably is. Stay vigilant this holiday season, shop securely online, don't fall for last minute deals or bogus charities, and always make sure strangers are who they say they are before you consider opening your wallet.

“Ask questions," says Jonasson. “There are places that can help you; people you can talk to." And, of course, if you're concerned about your aging parents, start the conversation with them — share what you know about the types of scams that are going around. “Once they've heard a story and what the outcome was, they realize 'Oh my, that could be me.' "