Fighting back against identity theft
People 65 and over are more likely to have a “nest egg,” own a home and have excellent credit from a lifetime of working, saving and investing. These sterling qualities attract con artists in droves, which is why consumers 60 and over accounted for 20 percent of identity theft complaints in 2013 according to credit-reporting company, Equifax.
Identity theft is the number one consumer complaint according to a 2013 Federal Trade Commission report. Last year consumers filed over one million fraud-related complaints with a total value of $1.6 billion. Because only 61 percent of those reporting the fraud filed the dollar value of the fraud, that number is likely to be low ball. Victims reported that U.S. companies perpetrated about 88 percent of the reported fraud cases and that most consumers received an initial contact through either the telephone or e-mail.
Why do thieves target older adults so often? Aside from the points above about their overall value as victims, older adults may find themselves open to identity theft through their health care services or tax filing says an Equifax white paper, which lists nine areas that leave them vulnerable. Those areas include having a caregiver with access to their personal information, interacting more frequently with the healthcare system (which reports nearly universal data breaches), a Medicare card that includes their Social Security number, and the increased chance that a fraudster can access your dead spouse’s Social Security number.
In 2013, identity thieves defrauded older adults by pretending to be employees of the National Do Not Call Registry. Callers asked victims to verify their information when of course they were gathering personal information they could later use. Another scam involved a company that purportedly offered free transportation to Medicare recipients. Apparently, the possibilities are without limit.
So how do you keep your personal information out of the hands of scammers? Equifax offers these suggestions:
Eliminate as much junk mail as you can from your mailbox by removing yourself from mailing lists.
You can opt out of offers from insurance and credit card companies by contacting OptOutPrescreen.com online or by calling 1-888-567-8688. The service is operated by the three credit reporting companies and will ask for your Social Security number. When you contact them, you’ll be asked whether you choose to opt out for 5 years or permanently. Read more about this service on the Federal Trade Commission’s website.
You can also contact the federal government’s National Do Not Call Registry. It is a free, easy way to reduce the telemarketing calls you get at home. To register your phone number or to get information about the registry, visit www.donotcall.gov, or call 1-888-382-1222 from the phone number you want to register.
Examine carefully any requests for personal information before responding to them. Federal government programs generally do not approach citizens, preferring instead to have citizens approach them. Therefore, you can expect that phone calls from the IRS, Social Security and the like are unlikely to be asking you for Social Security number, credit card information or other personal information. If you must provide personal information, for instance when you pay online for an item, ensure that the site is secure before paying.
Monitor your credit report and your bank account. I attended a meeting once where the speaker found that people who were scammed had originally had charges on their credit card or bank account for less than a dollar. Scammers found people’s personal information and then charged the account for a minor amount of money. That charge verified that the account was active and yet flew under the radar for the banks. Once the account was verified, the scammer used it for amounts that were more substantial. You can check each of the three major credit reporting bureaus once a year.
Understand how Medicare uses your private information. You have the right to limit how businesses that provide Medicare services use and give out your personal information. If you are aware of the rules they have to play by, you can limit your exposure to the bad players.
Understand what the current scams are. In the name of being forewarned is forearmed, keeping track of what scams are currently making the rounds provides you with the knowledge to avoid becoming part of the latest statistics.
A reader recommends these two fraud and scam resources.
- The Washington State Attorney General’s office for scam alerts. That website is:
You can sign up there to receive an e-mail alert of scams and other consumer-related news.
- AARP operates a service called Fraud Watch Network.
Again, you can add you name to their e-mail list to receive fraud-related information; and they have a Facebook page you can “like” to be notified of fraud-related information. You don’t have to be an AARP member to use this service.
Last but not least…share. This includes not only talking to your friends about current scams that you know about but also being willing to step up and identify yourself if you’ve been scammed. There’s no shame in being scammed whether the scammer is someone from Nigeria or a member of your family. They’ve had an opportunity to learn personal information about you that makes you vulnerable. If you’ve lost money or personal property, you may never be able to recover it but you can help the next person avoid being in the same boat.
For more stories about fraud:
Staying alert to the threat of a scam
Protection against identity theft for both the living and the dead
Protecting older family members from scams