Identity theft is a problem for all ages, but seniors are particularly at risk. According to recent testimony from Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt (CNBC – Feb 2019), one in 10 Americans age 65 or older who lives at home will become a victim of abuse. According to the US Senate Special Committee on Aging, older Americans in the US lose $3 billion annually in financial scams. US Senator Susan Collins called financial fraud against the elderly “a growing epidemic.” Thieves can access your personal information through your email, phone, at your door, or on the internet. Once they have that information, they can use it in all types of nefarious ways, stealing much-needed resources that may never be recovered. Read on to find out why seniors are more vulnerable to identity theft, types of identity theft and how to prevent them, and what to do if your personal information is compromised.
Why seniors are especially vulnerable to identity theft
Seniors generally have more assets
Seniors tend to have a higher net worth and more access to capital than younger folks, due to a lifetime of savings and investments, retirement funds, the sale of a home or business, or inheritance money.
Seniors tend to be more trusting
According to Forbes, older adult’s awareness or assessment of risk is not as strong as that of their younger counterparts.
Relying on caregivers
The elderly may rely on neighbors, the community, their family, or caregivers for support. Oftentimes, caregivers are given access to access to financial and medical records that include sensitive personal information.
More time at the doctor
According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, two industries targeted by cybercriminals are medical offices and government services, where your personal information is more at risk of compromise in a data breach.
Not as technologically savvy
Seniors didn’t grow up with the internet, and therefore may be less savvy about online privacy than those who did.
Types of identity theft
Phone scams and robocalls
You’ve won a free cruise! Not. When someone calls your home phone or cell phone asking you for money, that you must to “act now” to receive this special offer, it’s bogus. Sometimes the telemarketers will even say they’re from your cellphone carrier or credit card company. Don’t fall for it! Their goal is to get your credit card number or other personal info. PS, there’s no way someone on the phone would know whether or not your computer has a virus. You call tech support, they don’t contact you. Also, beware of scams targeting grandparents.
Posing as a “long-lost” relative who has fallen on hard times and needs a cash bailout.
Identity thieves target seniors over the telephone, looking to gain their trust to gain personal and financial data that can be used to commit fraud. As noted above, thieves can pretend to be a person in authority to solicit information, and they may employ a sense of urgency that prompts the victim to move quickly, without taking time to think about the consequences.
Phishing is when online con artists pose as a trustworthy entity, often in an email, in an effort to obtain sensitive personal data such as credit card information, usernames, and passwords. The problem is, the email requests for financial data, like account numbers and Social Security numbers, can seem legitimate. Often coming from a “business” like a bank, credit card company, or mortgage company, the emails can use intimidating language like, “Your account is about to be canceled!”. Sometimes they’re offering free software or claiming you’ve won a prize. Make no mistake, no legitimate business will ask to verify or update your personal information through an unsecured source such as email.
Computer virus scam
Pop-up browser windows mimic ads for anti-virus software, which is often in reality, a virus that can mess up your device, steal information stored on it, and gather data you enter like your usernames and passwords. You should already have one program for anti-virus software installed on your computer, from a reputable company such as Norton or McAfee.
Social security identity theft
There are five types of Social Security identity theft: financial, medical, criminal, government, and utility fraud. When a criminal somehow obtains your social security number they can use it to open or close bank accounts, receive medical care, tell the cops they’re you, claim your tax returns, get cable in your name, etc.
Military identity theft
The scammer claims to represent the Veteran’s Administration and requests personal information. Then they use Personally Identifiable Information (PII) to claim your military benefits.
Some scammers use dating sites to procure your financial details. They’ll reach out to you via private message on the site, sweet talk you, then all of a sudden, they need some money and start asking for your credit card number, etc. A telltale sign that they’re not in it for love? Broken English.
Someone, perhaps in uniform even, knocks on your door selling something, offering home repairs or unwarranted upgrades, or asking for charity contributions. Stranger danger! They might be after your identity.
Ways seniors can protect themselves from identity theft
Don’t open emails from email addresses you don’t recognize. Never click on a pop-up window, suspicious-looking link, or anything that says it’s “free”. When making purchases online, ensure the site’s URL begins in “https”–the S means the website is secure. Never wire money because of an email request, even if you think you might know the person. Doing so may put your personal information or your computer at risk. Don’t use insufficiently secured public Wi-Fi networks to check your email, social media, or bank account. Use complicated passwords and update them frequently.
Purchase identity theft protection
Identity theft protection companies like LifeLock detects fraudulent credit applications and illegal use of personal information and will alert you of any irregular activity related to your identity. Plus, if you become a victim of identity theft, they can help fix it and will reimburse the funds that were stolen (up to the limit of your plan).
The less you use a credit or debit card, the less opportunity someone has to steal it. If your cash is stolen, that’s a finite amount, whereas if your card information is stolen, that’s like a blank check. When paying with a card, make the transaction in person if at all possible, and keep your eyes on the card handler.
Leave your phone off the hook
Just kidding. But, don’t answer calls from phone numbers you don’t recognize, just let them go to voicemail. If you do answer, don’t be afraid to hang up or be rude. If the person claims to be from your credit card company or cell phone provider, hang up and dial their customer service number. Remember government agencies communicate via the mail, they won’t call you or communicate via email.
Add your home and mobile numbers to the National Do Not Call Registry. You should stop receiving calls from most telemarketers within a month. You may still receive calls from other types of organizations, such as charities, political groups, debt collectors, and surveys. Check with your phone provider to see if they have anti-spam software for your landline. Third-party call-blocking companies such as Nomorobo also offer this service. Learn more tips on how to stop robocalls and telemarketers here and on the FCC’s website.
That’s right, there’s a “do not call list” for the mail, too. Block commercial mail solicitations for five years with the Direct Marketing Association’s mail preference service. Opt-Out Services stops all of those unsolicited credit offers.
Don’t give out personal information
Never give personal information out, period. This includes your Social Security number, bank account information, or credit card numbers. To confirm whether a business or offer is legitimate, check with the Better Business Bureau.
Check out the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging’s book on Fighting Fraud. Read consumer information from the FTC here. Get a second opinion from a trusted family member or friend If you aren’t sure about something.
Use direct deposit
Protect Social Security and other benefit checks from being stolen by having them deposited directly into your bank account.
Be wary of family
Are the people you trust trustworthy? Sadly, over 90 percent of elder abuse is committed by a family member. Often an adult child is responsible for identity theft and financial exploitation of their own parents. This includes making changes to your account without permission, straight up stealing, or borrowing money without repayment. Additionally, when granting someone the power of attorney, make sure you can trust them to carefully guard your personal information.
Watch your finances
Set up online access to your accounts to keep an eye on your checking and savings account and credit card statements to ensure accuracy. Review your credit report annually. Look for bills for items you did not buy, debt collection calls for accounts you did not open, or a loan you didn’t apply for.
Consider going paperless and shred any paperwork with sensitive information as soon as you no longer need it. Collect your mail daily and place it on hold when you go on a trip. Keep vital documents, including your social security number, medical insurance details, and financial papers in a locked filing cabinet, drawer, or safe along with your Social Security card. Only carry your Medicare card and other PII when you need it. Don’t leave any sensitive information in your car, even if it’s locked.
What to do if your identity has been compromised
Report it immediately
If you’ve been a victim of identity theft, report it on identitytheft.gov. The FTC will open an identity theft case and provide an affidavit, which you can then file with the local police. If you suspect someone has stolen your Social Security number, file a report with your local police department and report the crime to the IRS immediately. Contact your Social Security Administration office for a replacement. If your caregiver is the perpetrator, you may need to contact Adult Protective Services.
Check your credit report
Your credit company will likely alert you of fraud, but if you’re the one to discover it, then contact them immediately.