This is the season for generosity — and for con artists who take advantage of it.
Older adults are particularly vulnerable to scams; more than a quarter of the victims of financial fraud are over 60, according to the FTC. But now there are products on the market designed to protect seniors' nest eggs.
Retired school teacher Ruth Heimer could have used some help. She usually donated about $50 a month to her favorite charities. But one day her family noticed that her donations had gone from $50 per month to about $50 a day.
"She just wasn't remembering that she'd donated yesterday," says her grandson, Kai Stinchcombe. She really went for those charity pitches with pictures of children and fonts that looked like handwriting, he says.
"It says, 'Ruth, I'm hungry and I need you to donate 20 cups of rice,' " Stinchcombe says. "You know, she thinks that kid is going to die if she doesn't donate 20 cups of rice."
He figures his grandmother probably gave away tens of thousands of dollars to questionable causes.
So Stinchcombe started a company called True Link. It issues prepaid Visa debit cards to older adults. True Link, working with families, can customize each card to block specific kinds of payments, such as wire transfers or sweepstakes entries or casinos.
"We're able to configure the card in such a way that it will decline payment for the type of transactions that are problematic," Stinchcombe says.
Older people who are victimized once tend to be victimized over and over again, says Doug Shadel, a fraud expert with AARP.
"Once you participate in one of these things, even if you only send in $3, you're really signaling to the con artists that you're someone who participates in this, compared to the majority of people who do not," Shadel says.
But enough people do. A recent study of older adults in Florida and Arizona found that about 60 percent had been targeted by scams, and about a quarter of those targeted had fallen for the pitches.
For Howard Tischler's mother, the problem began when she purchased an auto club policy from a telemarketer that cost $80 a month. Tischler says his mother was legally blind, didn't own a car and didn't have a driver's license.
One useless purchase led to many others and, eventually, to credit card bills of around $20,000.
Tischler, a software developer, thought it would be great if families could be tipped off to these problem purchases immediately, before the bills get out of hand.
So he founded Eversafe. The company scans all of the bank accounts, credit cards and investments of an older adult on a daily basis. If something looks fishy, the older adult — and his or her designated family members — are notified.
Tischler says this enables older adults to continue to live independently, but to have "an extra set of eyes."
The AARP has a Fraud Watch Network where hundreds of thousands of members report new scams when they see them. Shadel says the AARP also has call centers, where volunteers phone older people who are at high risk for being targeted by scam artists.
"We try and describe very specifically how the scams work, so that you can say, 'Ah, I've seen that before and I'm not going to go for it,' " Shadel says.
Research shows that counseling from someone their own age actually helps older adults resist scams. It can also provide an alternative for those who prefer talking over technology.