Nowadays, “You better watch out” isn’t just about Santa Claus coming to town. It’s also a heads-up about scammers whose Grinch-like efforts to grab money and identities tend to multiply at this time of year. Here are six kinds of scams to beware of—online, on the phone, or in person:
1. Charity scams: “Help those less fortunate than you!”
These scams usually take the form of a phone call asking for a holiday contribution to benefit military veterans, firefighters or police, needy children, or victims of a natural disaster. The caller may solicit a credit-card donation before you have time to check out the request.
While some of these appeals are legit, the cost of telemarketing means that, at best, only part of your donation will ever reach the charity. To protect yourself, say, “I don’t make financial decisions over the phone.” Hang up and visit the charity’s website, give.org, or charitynavigator.org so you can decide whether or not to donate directly.
2. Utility scams: “We’ll have to shut off your service unless you pay your overdue balance right now.”
The threat of being without power, gas, or water in cold weather can scare anyone. But don’t rush to buy a prepaid gift or debit card, which is often how these fraudsters want to be paid. Instead, check your utility account status directly by phone or online. If you’re indeed in arrears, you’ll be given weeks or months of notice before a shutoff.
3. Medicare scams: “We’re updating our records and need to verify that you’re enrolled.”
What these crooks want is your Medicare number, which is the same as your Social Security number. With it, they may succeed in taking out new loans in your name and ruining your credit. Also beware of bogus health care providers who say you owe them money, or insurers who demand to be reimbursed for an “overpayment.”
4. Tax scams: “You owe a penalty because of the Affordable Care Act.”
The complexity of the ACA, also known as ObamaCare, has inspired a new version of the imposter-IRS agent scam. In a phone call or an email, you’re notified that you owe a tax penalty because you didn’t have proper health care coverage last year. You’re told to send a check made out to “I.R.S.” or a prepaid gift card. (In reality, the IRS doesn’t accept gift cards. And checks should be made out to “United States Treasury.”)
5. Contractor scams: “Get a special price if you pay in advance.”
Sounds good—but once the helpful stranger pockets your payment and drives off in his plow truck, you won’t see him all winter. Other drive-by scammers may offer to fix your roof (“With those old shingles, you’ll have ceiling leaks by spring,”) or your furnace (“How long has your chimney been putting out that funny-colored smoke?”). Don’t agree to anything, no matter how sweet the deal sounds. Take down their contact information, then ask a contractor you trust for a second opinion.
6. Investment scams: “This risk-free investment pays high returns—guaranteed.”
If you’re invited out of the blue to a financial seminar that includes a free lunch, go for the food—not the advice. According to the AARP Bulletin, you’re likely to be pitched such “unsuitable if not bogus investments” as oil and gas, precious metals, promissory notes, life settlements, and long-maturity annuities. For better advice tailored to your situation, find a fee-only financial planner at napfa.org or garrettplanningnetwork.com.