The Federal Trade Commission has reported identity theft as the top consumer complaint, affecting millions of Americans each year. Seniors are particularly vulnerable, and identity theft affecting seniors rose 200%. Seniors are appealing targets because they generally have higher credit lines, home equity, and more savings than young people. Seniors are also easy targets for e-mail fraud, and charity fraud. Internet scams will often instruct a senior to access their bank account online in order to “correct an error”. Most of the time, seniors will be asked to click on a link inside the e-mail, and they will be taken to a site that looks like their bank’s or credit card’s own site. They will be asked for pin numbers, account numbers and personal information. After that, the identity thief gains access to their accounts, open new credit cards, and steal funds.
Never release this type of information over the internet, unless you are absolutely sure that you are on the correct website. The best way to be sure is to log into a website directly, or call your bank’s customer service department. Most banks and credit cards have a 24-hour toll-free number for customer service and identity theft victims. If you suspect identity theft, immediately contact your bank and credit cards companies. Cancel everything-if you are wrong, then you may experience a little inconvenience while you wait for your new credit cards to arrive. If you are right, and identity theft has occurred, you can save yourself thousands of dollars and lots of headaches if you act quickly.
Seniors are instructed to carry Medicare cards at all times. Their Medicare cards, in turn, have social security numbers printed plainly on the front. If possible, always leave social security cards and Medicare cards at home. If you are going to a new doctor, take it with you, and then return it to a safe place when you come home.
If a business requests your social security number without a legitimate reason, refuse to give it. Health care providers, the social security administration, and the IRS are a few of the organizations that have a legitimate reason for requesting your social security number. Small businesses, such as your veterinarian, handyman, or grocery store clerk should not ask for your social security number.
1. Print checks with as little information as possible. Use only your first initial, last name, and address. If you have a business address, use it in lieu of your home address. That way, if your checks are ever stolen, your home address is protected. This is especially important for female seniors, who may live alone. Do not print your phone number or social security number on your checks.
2. Get a copy of your credit report every year. It’s free, and if you find errors on your report, you can continue to get free reports until the errors are corrected. All three credit reporting agencies are required to give you a free report if you have been denied credit, or you suspect fraud on your account.
You can contact all three credit reporting agencies directly. The contact numbers for the three credit reporting agencies are: Equifax (800) 525-6285 Experian (888) 397-3742 Trans Union (800) 680-7289)
3. Protect your mail. Do not leave mail in your box overnight. Get a locking mailbox from your local hardware store. They are relatively expensive, and well worth the investment. Deposit mail in US post offices, or US mailboxes. Do not leave mail out for your postman to pick up, especially if your mail contains personal checks!
4. Shred all important documents. Use a paper shredder to destroy all important financial documents. Identity thieves often use trash bins to “troll” for personal information. This technique is called “dumpster diving”, and is one of the most common methods that thieves use to steal financial information.
5. Never give personal information over the phone unless you initiated the phone call. A common scam is for a thief to call you, and claim to be calling from your doctor’s office. They ask to “confirm” your insurance information, and social security number, which most people supply without thinking. Don’t become a victim of this scam! Call your doctor’s office directly, and ask them if they require the information. If the call was fraudulent, contact your insurer, and the police.
If you are still a victim of identity theft, don’t panic. Go to your local police station, and file a police report. Your bank and credit cards cannot make you legally responsible for crimes committed in your name by an identity thief. Contact the credit reporting agencies, and place a fraud alert on your account. If creditors begin calling, tell them that you are the victim of identity theft, and that you request to be contacted in writing. That way, you can respond with a copy of the police report and a letter. DO NOT PAY CREDITORS FOR FRAUDULENT CHARGES! Many collection agencies purposely intimidate and bully identity theft victims. This is sad, but true. After consulting multiple identity theft victims, I am constantly shocked by how many are also victims of creditor abuse. If you become a victim of creditor harassment, report the credit card company or creditor to the Federal Trade Commission.
The address to report creditor abuse is Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection 55 East Monroe Street, #1437 Chicago, IL 60603 312-353-4423