Migrating to warm-weather states like Florida and Arizona as the temperature drops “up north”? So are scammers on the lookout for pigeons to pluck during Snowbird Season, which runs from late November through April.
Some are part of organized crime rings — boiler-room telemarketers and so-called Gypsy Travelers who specifically target short-time vacationers and longer-staying, older seasonal residents. Others are local fraudsters taking advantage of the influx of visitors. Either way, here are the most common threats:
Crooked sales clerks and restaurant employees love free-spending tourists and snowbirds — especially when they pay by credit card. Vacationers are less likely to closely monitor their financial accounts away from home. “They know they have a better chance of using that card without getting caught,” said Joe Roubicek, who spent 20 years investigating scams as a Fort Lauderdale police detective and now counsels law enforcement across the U.S.
Although you’re liable for only $50 if your credit card is used fraudulently (and many plastic providers will waive that), an unscrupulous employee can copy your credit card information and glean other information online to open new accounts under your identity. Whenever possible, try to pay with cash, or use only one credit card and keep close tabs on its activity.
Organized gangs travel south to work businesses and flea markets near retirement communities for a week or so, then move to the next community, warns Bob Arno, a former pickpocket who is now a comedic counselor on street crimes. Older snowbirds are prized targets because they tend carry cash, wear looser-fitting clothing and may have delayed reactions (or are busy shopping).
When you see strangers approaching or are in a crowd, keep your hand on your wallet or your handbag close — especially when approached by “lost” duos in need of directions. In a common ploy, one distracts — sometimes with map in hand — while the other dips. When possible, keep wallets in a safety pouch worn below clothing or in a buttoned pocket.
Snowbirds can expect phony phone calls claiming they won a sweepstakes, have a grandchild in need or other telephone trickery seeking money or personal information. Why? Scammers buy calling lists of snowbird-rich communities, knowing some swell by the thousands of “in season” occupants. Or they simply increase random calls to those area codes. If you own a condo or second home, it’s even easier to get personal info, such as your name and age, through public records posted online.
Back home, unannounced visits by self-described utility workers or contractors should sound alarms of a possible scam. But excuses to get inside a home have more credence, at least to unsuspecting snowbirds, when the front-door fraudster claims “the condo association sent me.” Once inside, phony exterminators may “accidentally” spill liquid or spray pesticide on occupants. (As you clean up, they might try to clean you out.) So-called contractors may feign work and when you’re not looking, do their own grab-and-go. Unless you initiate contact or the condo association gives prior notice, never let any stranger inside your dwelling.
In parking lots, scammers search for out-of-state license plates or rental cars. They pop the hood and pull wires to disable the vehicle, waiting for you to return. Then they offer to help get the car started for a price. A better option: If you’re not an AAA member, call the local police for assistance.