Snowbird season kicks off this month, as millions of retirees migrate to warm-temperature states like Florida and Arizona. But while escaping the cold, they also weather more risks—at both locales.
"There's a definite increase in scams against snowbirds, many by organized outfits that specifically focus on older, seasonal residents," says Joe Roubicek, who spent 30 years investigating scams as a Fort Lauderdale police detective and investigator for the Florida State Attorney's Office.
Secure your house. Set up timers for your lights. Ask a friend to stop by occasionally to ensure that everything is well lit and your driveway isn't covered with snow or littered with penny-saver newspapers that aren't held or forwarded by the post office.
Enlist a "What-If" contact. Roubicek suggests making a list of what could possibly go wrong—and whom you would call when it does. "What if you're in an accident, are robbed at a rest stop or need medication?" he asks.
"The biggest mistake made by snowbirds is not proactively arranging for a back-home contact to help in emergencies." Share your designee's contact information with the local police department, plus your doctors, pharmacy and family members. To reduce the chance that you'll need to call on the person, pack copies of prescriptions, important medical records and financial account numbers (all personal data should be stored in a safe place).
Call your insurer. Before you take off, find out if you'll need to take certain precautions to ensure full homeowner coverage—such as maintaining heat in your home at a specific temperature or shutting off the water supply and draining water from pipes and appliances. The good news: You might warrant a discount on auto insurance if you leave a car at home.
Notify payment-card providers as to when you will be leaving, where you are going and how long you'll be away. This helps fraud departments stop bogus charges and reduces the risk of legitimate transactions being declined due to mistaken suspicion of unusual activity.
After You Arrive
Stick with one credit card. This makes account monitoring easier, which is important when waiters physically handle your plastic and can capture card numbers with cellphone cameras or write them down with pen and paper. If fraudulent charges are made, you're liable for only $50, but your card's details could be used with other information to open new accounts under your identity.
Use Wi-Fi wisely. Public hot spots at libraries and coffee shops are no place to do online shopping or banking, or to check your investment portfolio. Unlike at home, where transmissions are encrypted between your computer and router, hot-spot hackers may be able to access log-in credentials, financial accounts and other sensitive data.
Know the most common snowbird scams
Repair rip-offs These reign supreme, notes Roubicek, author of Financial Abuse of the Elderly: A Detective's Case Files of Exploitation Crimes. Saying "the condo association sent me," fraudulent contractors and utility workers show up at your door. If you let them in, they may perform shoddy, overpriced repairs or scout a burglary. Beware of teams—one worker diverts you as the other steals—or exterminators who "accidentally" spray pesticide on you and, as you clean up, clean you out. Unless you initiate contact or the condo association gives prior notice, never let a stranger inside.
Parking lot ploys Crooks search for unlocked cars with out-of-state licenses plates and disable wires under the hood or flatten tires. When you return, they offer "help" for a ridiculous price.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.