"Absolutely, during snowbird season there's an increase in scams — and many are done by organized outfits ... who specifically target older seasonal residents," says Joe Roubicek, who spent 20 years investigating scams as a Fort Lauderdale police detective before writing Financial Abuse of the Elderly: A Detective's Case Files of Exploitation Crimes.
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If you're among the thousands about to migrate to a warmer climate, beware of these common snowbird scams:
1. The malevolent mechanic. They wait outside shopping malls or supermarkets, watching for snowbirds (often recognized by out-of-state license plates) to park and go inside. If the car's older or left unlocked, they can pop the hood and disable the vehicle by pulling wires. "When the elder returns, they offer help getting their car started — after driving them to the bank for money to pay for the repair," says Roubicek. "Their main target: women in their 70s or 80s."
Your best option, if you're not a AAA member, is to call a friend or police to give you a hand.
2. Pickpockets. Organized gangs work flea markets and the aisles of stores near retirement communities for a week or so, then move to the next community, says Bob Arno, a former pickpocket-turned-comedic counselor on street crimes. Snowbirds are especially targeted because they tend to carry cash, wear looser-fitting clothing and may have slower reactions.
If you're in a crowd or you see strangers ahead, keep your hand on your wallet or tightly clutch your handbag. Be especially careful when approached by "lost" duos in need of directions. (One distracts you — sometimes with map in hand — while the other dips into your bag.) If possible, keep wallets in a buttoned pocket or in a safety pouch worn beneath clothing.
3. ID theft. Roubicek warns of store clerks who capture credit card numbers with cellphone cameras or pen and paper and then make fraudulent purchases. It's a good idea to use only one card — with the lowest credit limit — for snowbird season purchases and go online regularly to keep close tabs on its activity.
4. The bank examiner scam. Milling around outside banks, con artists pose as bank officials or law enforcement agents who are investigating a corrupt teller. They ask you, as a trusted customer, to go inside, withdraw some money and hand it over. Don't worry, we just need to check serial numbers and mark the banknotes, you're told — we'll redeposit them right away to see if the teller steals any. Of course, they and the cash quickly disappear. Real banking examiners and police don't need your money for their investigations.
5. The lottery winner who can't collect. In a parking lot, someone approaches you claiming to hold a winning lottery ticket. Only problem, the "winner" is in the United States illegally and can't go get the money. Just pay me a portion of the jackpot, you're told, and you can have the ticket. Its number may be "verified" by a passerby — "I saw it announced on TV last night." In reality, this person is an accomplice.
It's one of many so-called pigeon drop scams, in which a stranger offers to share a fortune (found money, an inheritance, etc.) once you make your "good faith" contribution. Forget good faith; use good judgment instead.
6. The condo caper. Unannounced visits by self-described utility workers or contractors should always sound internal alarms of a possible scam. But a request to enter your home can have more credence when the front-door fraudster claims "the condo association sent me."
The crooks often work in pairs and also pose as exterminators. One may "accidentally" spill liquid or even spray pesticide on you and divert your attention by helping with the cleanup while the other stealthily steals valuables.
"If there's one guy, the 'accident' can be to lubricate your hand so he can slip a ring off your finger — or offers to clean it for you," notes Roubicek. "Some then just pocket the jewelry and run off, knowing that many elders are timid and won't stop them."
So unless you initiate contact or the condo association gives prior notice, never let these folks inside your dwelling.
7. Telemarketing cons. Snowbirds can expect an uptick in phony phone calls claiming that they've won a sweepstakes or that a grandchild is in a jam and needs a quick wiring of cash. Why? "The energy of boiler rooms moves to snowbird communities" in the winter, says Roubicek, as scammers buy calling lists of communities that are swelled by thousands of seasonal residents. If you own a condo or second home, it's easy to get personal info such as your name and age, information that's dropped into the come-on to make it seem more legitimate.
Just hang up!
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.