As a senior citizen, it becomes increasingly important to know which things to avoid to prevent identity theft. This crime is defined as using someone’s identifying information without their consent for financial gain –be it spending money, loans, credit, or other benefits. Senior citizens are among the most frequently targeted groups, along with children, high-income people, and frequent social media users. The apparent reasons include seniors’ high net worth, susceptibility to elder abuse, frequent sharing of information with doctors and caregivers, and frequent trust of scammers. This article will explain how to recognize the signs of identity theft before and after the fact, and what you can do to protect yourself from it.
How Identity Theft Operates
Perpetrators of identity theft aim to obtain your basic identifying information (such as your name) along with secure information (such as your social security number or bank account number). Your driver’s license, online presence, Medicare card, medical prescriptions, and other identifying documents can all become sources of exploitable information if they fall into the wrong hands. Fraudsters may use this information to make transactions, such as filing taxes, applying for credit, or receiving medical services. The crime may reflect poorly on your credit status as a result of perpetrators’ actions –sometimes seriously damaging the good credit scores for which identity thieves particularly target seniors.
In some cases, you can immediately recognize your identity has been stolen because you have reason to suspect someone has stolen your physical cards or documents or otherwise obtained access to your finances. In other cases, you may only become aware of the crime after receiving bills for items you never bought, being denied loans, or receiving debt collection calls for accounts someone else opened in your name. To mitigate damages, you must prove that the perpetrator is not you. Reporting identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission will provide you with a recovery plan and a report you can show to your local police department. In most cases, you can restart your bank accounts and cards with your finances recovered.
There are steps anyone can take to secure their information before identity theft can occur. For instance, your social security number is an especially sensitive piece of information you should only give out when necessary –which means not carrying your card in your wallet regularly. The same goes for your Medicare card. You should also not give out any identifying information simply because someone asks. Collecting your mail, securing online passwords, shredding unneeded documents with identifying information, and installing firewalls on your computer can protect you from various methods of identity theft.
However, seniors, in particular, must also learn the signs of elder abuse and phishing scams in order to protect their information.
Avoiding Identity Theft from Personal Connections
As a general rule, you should only give your personal information to those with whom you initiated contact. However, many seniors experience identity theft from people they know personally. Financial abuse from family or caregivers usually involves stealing money with access to your accounts. Avoiding this action requires you to be suspicious of connections unusually interested in your finances, keep your documents in a safe place, and only grant your power of attorney to a trustworthy individual.
If you have difficulty finding any family members you can rely on as caregivers, you can find third-party caregivers through Eldercare Locator and other resources. However, finding one you trust requires its own vetting process. You should seek out caregivers who have undergone background checks, ask them interview questions about their character, and give preference to those pursuing a career in caregiving (as they have a greater incentive not to cause harm).
Both personal and impersonal fraudsters tend to target seniors by appealing to emotions. A family member’s appeal to familial connections and a scammer’s emotionally-affecting lie can convince people to make irrational decisions, especially if presented with a sense of urgency. Dementia and other forms of atrophy already affect seniors’ decision-making processes, making them less likely to analyze a fraudster’s intentions or less aware of the danger. Additionally, many seniors experience the isolation that makes appeals to emotion more effective. Detecting this exploitation among people you know requires you to consider long-term behavior, whereas scams are something you must learn to detect immediately.
Recognizing Identity Theft Scams
Scams targeted at seniors tend to follow identifiable scripts. Scammers may claim you have won something such as a free vacation, enter sweepstakes, or ask you to donate to charity in a bid to get your credit card number. They may pose as a grandchild in trouble, a dating site user with a financial crisis, medical providers requiring information updates, or the IRS demanding payment for back taxes to acquire your money. They may pose as tech companies warning you about computer viruses or software in need of replacement to obtain your passwords. Some scammers even know how to pose as the Veterans Administration to steal military benefits or steal from the estates of the deceased.
Identity theft has greatly risen in recent decades because of the internet, especially among seniors who might not be as readily able to use it safely as younger generations. Internet scams often result from inputting your passwords or credit card information into boxes on insecure websites –also known as “phishing”. As mentioned, messages from scammers posing as companies, government organizations, or dating site users may lead you to these sites. Viruses may also enable scammers to steal your information without your input. You can protect yourself by inputting correct URLs for organizations instead of clicking links or downloading attachments claiming to represent them, and by being skeptical of the entity’s need for your information or money.
Phone scams often promise rewards too good to be true or threaten you or loved ones with circumstances too bad to be true. It is safest to be skeptical, hang up, register trusted people as contacts, set unknown numbers to voicemail, and/or call the organization’s real number for verification.
Identity theft may be a frighteningly common occurrence, but there is also increasing awareness of the telltale signs. Follow this advice, and you can keep your identity safe.
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