Happy birthday, America! Time for fireworks, barbecues and flag-waving.
But know that fraudsters also have their own reason to celebrate: On July 4 (and every other day), your patriotism helps them in some of the nation's biggest scams - especially but not exclusively when targeting those of retirement age.
"Despite the stereotype, there is not a lot of data to indicate that seniors are any more trusting than anyone else," says Stacey Wood, a neuropsychologist at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., who investigates how age influences the risk of being scammed. "But they tend to be more patriotic - and that plays into increased vulnerability in scams that play on these emotions."
Sweepstakes and lottery scams. By now, you should know that those mailed letters promising an unexpected jackpot aren't worth the paper they're printed on. The 'gotcha' is in providing the requested upfront payment for taxes, insurance or other fees to "collect" a prize that never arrives.
So what helps explain why so many folks still fall victim? Notice what's often printed on the envelope: images of American flags, eagles and even a familiar "Don't tamper with under federal penalty" notice to suggest these letters are "from" the U.S. Postal Service. Such patriotic symbols are purposely used by scammers to increase the odds that recipients will open the envelope and take the bait.
In one study, Arizona State University researchers learned that even though a majority of older recipients of such mailings believed they were suspicious, if not certainly fraudulent, nearly half still responded to the offer inside. Among reasons they cited were the all-American envelope markings and "their trust in the U.S. government," according to lead researcher William Arnold. (Meanwhile, this trust also helps fraudsters collect personal information for identity theft when posing as representatives of the IRS, Medicare, the FBI and other federal agencies in phone calls, emails and front-door visits.)
Charity scams. Although the most lucrative charity cons now involve fake charities that spring up following a natural disaster, those alleging to benefit disabled military veterans and active-duty personnel remain a popular hot-button hoax. (Others include phony charities purporting to aid sick children, police and firefighters.)
So beware: Historically, military-related charity scams tend to increase around July 4, along with Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Before donating - especially when contacted by telephone - know how to check out a charity's legitimacy.
Romance scams . In another way to capitalize on our respect for the military, sweetheart swindlers often pose as soldiers or officers on online dating websites and chat rooms. After weeks of cyber sweet talk, romance scammers (who often steal photos, and sometimes names, of legitimate military personnel to make their lies more convincing) inevitably ask for money - typically via wire transfer - claiming some type of financial crisis or personal emergency.
According to the U.S. Army, victims are most often women between 30 and 55 years old. The average per-victim loss exceeds $10,000, but historically, older women have lost the most. In 2012, the FBI reports, American women in their 50s and older were swindled of at least $34 million in romance scams - more than any other age group.
Online greeting card scams. As with other holidays, Independence Day is prime time to receive fraudulent online greeting cards that unleash malware to give cybercrooks remote access to your files, online banking accounts and passwords for possible identity theft, or enlist your computer as a spam-sending "botnet."
In the past, malware-infecting e-cards distributed around July 4 touted patriotic-themed subject lines including "American Pride on the 4 th," "Celebrate Your Nation" and "America the Beautiful." So beware of such teasers - and know this: Whenever you receive an email promising an electronic greeting card, don't click on embedded links - especially if the sender is an unnamed "friend" or "fellow patriot." Even if you do recognize the sender's name, realize that legitimate e-cards will have a confirmation code, which you can enter at the card company's website to read the card.
For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network . You'll receive email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and gain access to a network of experts, law enforcement and people in your community who will keep you up to date on the latest scams in your area.
Also of Interest
- 7 Signs It's a Job Scam
- Donnalou Stevens Stands Up for 'Older Ladies' in Viral Video
- Fight fraud and ID theft with the AARP Fraud Watch Network.
- Join AARP: savings, resources and news for your well-being
See the AARP home page for deals, savings tips, trivia and more.