Identity Theft Protection for Seniors

If you live in today’s world, you run the risk of having your identity stolen. Identity theft occurs when a criminal deliberately uses someone else’s identity to obtain financial gain, to make purchases or to obtain credit or loans or to gain other benefits in another person’s name, often at the other person’s loss or disadvantage. Identity theft occurs when anyone obtains, uses and/or gains access to your personal documents and information without your consent. Unfortunately, your personal information can be found in numerous places – from your driver’s license to your Medicare card to the labels on your prescription bottles to countless locations across the world-wide web.

The risk is real, and everyone is a target. According to a 2018 online survey by The Harris Poll, almost 60 million Americans have been affected by identity theft, with nearly 15 million consumers experiencing identity theft in 2017. According to Javelin Strategy & Research, the number of people affected by identity theft is on the rise. Although reliable statistics concerning who is most targeted for identity theft are difficult to obtain, four groups of people are especially vulnerable:

  • Children
  • Mega social media users
  • High-income earners
  • The elderly

Not only does a senior have the potential of falling into three of these four groups, but they are also particularly susceptible to identity theft for a wide number of other reasons, as well, including:

  • They are frequent targets for phishing scams (when someone posing as a trustworthy entity, often in an electronic communication, fraudulently attempts to obtain sensitive information such as credit card information, usernames and passwords).
  • When seniors grant powers of attorney, they are giving that person wide access to their personal information. A person who is made power of attorney should be trustworthy and must carefully guard this sensitive information.
  • A senior’s personal information may be vulnerable in hospitals and other care facilities.

Seniors may not be as technologically savvy as the criminals who attempt to steal their information. Additionally, according to a study at Cornell University, brain changes in some older adults increase their risks of falling for scams because they are less able to perceive the criminal’s intentions and less able to understand the danger found in certain situations. These seniors have more atrophy and less connectivity in two key areas of the brain. Seniors who have these key brain changes may be less skeptical and more vulnerable to financial exploitation.

And, because seniors may also have a high net worth, they are targeted by phishing attacks, phone scams and medical identity theft (when someone illegally uses a patient’s personally identifiable information to gain access to medical treatment, goods or services) more than younger adults.

When criminals target a senior in their identity theft schemes, it is considered to be elder fraud. Elder fraud, as defined by the US Department of Justice, “is an act targeting older adults in which attempts are made to deceive with promises of goods, services, or financial benefits that do not exist, were never intended to be provided, or were misrepresented. Financial exploitation is the illegal or improper use of an older adult’s funds or property.”

Identity theft cases can be surprising. Sadly, identity theft and financial exploitation are often perpetrated by family members and other people the senior already knows. In the Cornell University study, financially abusive situations included:

  • A daughter charging $2,000 to a senior’s account without permission
  • Even after being confronted about it, a grandson continues to steal from his grandparent
  • After borrowing $4,000, a son’s girlfriend never paid it back

Almost five percent of older adults can expect to be financially exploited. This rate of incidence is higher than many age-related diseases such as arthritis, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Types of Identity Theft Seniors Should Be Aware Of

Far too many seniors fall prey to scammers looking to make a quick and easy buck. In fact, financial scams targeting seniors now happen so frequently, it has been dubbed “the crime of the 21st century.” Because these types of crime can be difficult to prosecute and often go unreported, they’re considered a “low risk” crime.

Although seniors are often targeted because of the savings they (may) have accrued for their retirement, all seniors, both wealthy and low-income, are at risk. Let’s look at some of the common schemes targeting seniors.

Medicare/Health Insurance Identity Theft

Because every senior in the U.S. (citizen and permanent resident) over the age of 65 qualifies for Medicare, it makes it easier for scam artists to perpetrate Medicare/Health Insurance fraud. There’s no need for research to determine who the healthcare provider is … it’s Medicare.

In Medicare/health insurance scams, the criminals impersonate themselves as a Medicare agent to entice seniors to provide them with their personal information. Or, they’ll deliver bogus senior-targeted services at makeshift mobile clinics in order to gather personal information which is then used to bill Medicare, pocketing the proceeds.

The FBI offers information on common schemes and tips to help you avoid health care and health insurance fraud.

Internet Fraud and Identity Theft

Seniors, who have had to adapt to computer and internet usage at an older age than today’s youth, may not be as adept at using computers as they need to be in order to safely use them. This ineptitude makes them easy targets for automated internet scams.

Mimicking virus scanning software, pop-up browser windows entice users to download bogus anti-virus software. The user is swindled of the cost of the fake software and/or a virus is downloaded onto their computer which shares whatever information is on the computer while also gathering data entered such as usernames and passwords.

Email/phishing scams are also prevalent and are used to steal funds and gather personal information. Phishing (pronounced as “fishing”) plays on a person’s innate psychology. By representing themselves as a high level of authority organization and impressing a need for immediate action, often threatening loss or punishment, these emails are dangerously persuasive. By indicating the need for urgent action, the recipient’s focus is targeted on the importance of the task at hand which in turn lowers their guard.

Examples of such scams include receiving bogus emails (which look very legitimate and official from organizations such as PayPal, Amazon, FedEx, USPS, your bank, Netflix and many others):

  • That appear to be from a legitimate institution or company, asking you to verify or update your personal information
  • Indicating that your membership to an organization has been canceled and you need to contact them immediately to resolve the issue
  • Indicating you need to update your “official record” such as with a governmental organization
  • Saying you missed a delivery or that more information is needed to deliver a package
  • Indicating you need to confirm your account or need to click on a link to unlock your account
  • Indicating your account is suspended until you update your information
  • Offering unexpected refunds of payments such as from the IRS (They use psychology, knowing it’s hard to turn down free money.)

Spear-phishing attacks, attacks that contain personalized information about you or the “supposed” sender (something that only a “legitimate” company should know), are especially difficult to ignore. Because the perpetrator has taken the time to gather information before the attack and have “inside information”, they appear to be very legitimate. Spear-phishers study their target in advance of their attack. They want to know enough about you and your habits which lures you in without raising any red flags. Spear-phishing attacks come from your bank, the company you currently work for or have worked for, organizations which you are a member of, etc. Through research about you, they plan the attack to make them appear totally legit.

All it takes is one click. If you click on any links found inside these emails, the following may occur:

  • The electronic device you used to read your email is immediately infected with malware
  • You are taken to a dummy login page, where the hacker easily steals your login credentials, credit card numbers, etc.

Social Security Identity Theft

For criminals who don’t want to pay their personal taxes, your Social Security number may be very valuable to them. Criminals using your Social Security number can avoid paying taxes through various means. There are five types of identity theft using a Social Security number:

  • Financial identity theft takes place when someone uses your personal information for financial gain. Identity thieves use your Social Security number, other information they have gathered and your good credit to apply for more credit in your name. After using the credit cards, they don’t pay the bills which damages your credit and you may begin to receive calls from creditors demanding payment for goods you never purchased. Examples of financial identity theft include bank fraud, credit card fraud, mail fraud, computer fraud, wire fraud and employment fraud.
  • Government identity theft takes place when someone uses your personal information in interactions with the U.S. government. Examples include someone using your Social Security number and your personal information to file a tax return in your name requesting a refund. This is known at Stolen Identity Refund Fraud (SIRF) and is essentially stealing money from the U.S. Treasury in your name.
  • Criminal identity theft takes place when someone uses your Social Security Number when dealing with law authorities. For example, they have used your number when arrested which can lead to an arrest warrant for you.
  • Medical identity theft takes place when someone uses your Social Security Number to receive treatment and emergency care. When this occurs, you can receive bills for their care, reach Medicare and health insurer plan limits and get denied for coverage because of misinformation. Plus, your safety may be compromised when you need care and misinformation that is now in your medical record file is used to provide you with treatment.
  • Utility fraud occurs when someone uses your Social Security number and other personal information to open utility service contracts or upgrade services on already existing accounts.

To make matters worse, your Social Security number and other personal information can be sold on the dark web and used again and again by other fraudsters and criminals. Once someone has your Social Security number, they, in essence, become you. In your name, they can collect tax refunds, commit crimes, collect benefits and income, use health insurance, establish residences, and so much more. If you’ve lost your social security number, it can be challenging to clean up the mess, but there are things that you can to do to begin the process.

To learn more about Social Security identity theft and what you can do about it, check out the Social Security Administration’s pamphlet, Identity Theft and Your Social Security Number. Never routinely carry your Social Security card or anything with your Social Security number written on it.

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.

Other Identity Theft Schemes That Target Seniors

According to the FBI, “People who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were raised to be polite and trusting. Con artists exploit these traits, knowing it’s difficult … for these individuals to say ‘no’.” Additionally, the crimes often go unreported, whether out of shame or simply not knowing who to call. The following are common scams seniors encounter. Be sure to click on the links provided to learn more and to get tips to help prevent being victimized.

  • In Advance Fee Schemes, a person pays money to the fraudster in anticipation of getting something of greater value, such as a loan, investment, contract, gift, etc. The Nigerian Letter or “419” Fraud are examples of this.
  • In Telemarketing Fraud, people often send money and share personal or financial information to unknown callers, increasing their chance of becoming a telemarketing victim.
  • In Bank Account or Financial Identity Theft, a criminal gains unauthorized access to your bank account. If an identity thief gets access to your account, you need to read the Electronic Funds Transfer Act and take immediate action.
  • Military Identity Theft occurs when a criminal uses a service member’s personal information to claim their military benefits. Veterans may be scammed when called to “confirm” their disability status; when in fact, the call was intended to retrieve their personal information instead.
  • Credit Card Fraud occurs when someone fraudulently uses a credit or debit card for financial gain.
  • Wire Transfer Fraud occurs with a fraudster uses a person’s personal information to electronically transfer money from your account or fraudulently convinces you to transfer money to them through a scam.

Social Media and Identity Theft

Almost everyone is involved with social media; after all, it’s a great way to connect with family, friends and the world. Not only are criminals turning to social media sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, to gather personal information about their targets, but they may also be using social media to select their targets, as well. In posts, you may not think twice about sharing a grandchild’s birthday picture, a beloved pet or pictures of your birthday dinner. But those posts shared more than you realize. You have shared your grandchild’s name, their birthday, your pet’s name and the date of your birth – all things that people frequently use as passwords. This is something that every person should remember as they share personal information on social media sites, and as they chose passwords and security question answers. Although these personal things make it easy for a person to remember passwords and security questions, it also makes them an easy victim. Plus, people who are very active in social media and share lots of personal information are often targets for fraudsters.

Additional Information and Help Concerning Identity Theft

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has written an extensive “Money Smart for Older Adults” guide designed to help seniors, family caregivers and others recognize, prevent and report financial exploitation. The FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) also offers a Money Smart for Older Adults Training Curriculum.

Savvy Saving Seniors® offers financial education materials and toolkits. Toolkit 2, Steps to Avoiding Scams, provides an overview of popular senior-targeted scams, tips to avoid them and the next steps a victim can take once financial fraud has occurred.

Identity Theft Protection Companies

The best and easiest way to protect yourself, prevent identity theft and avoid the pain of having to recover your identity is to purchase identity theft protection.  There are many, many companies who can provide you with this insurance.

  • Identity Guard
  • Identity Force
  • LifeLock
  • Experian IdentityWorks

In closing …

Identity theft is a fairly commonplace occurrence. In today’s society, it is not a question of “if”, but of “when.” In fact, a Javelin Strategy & Research study reports that an identity theft occurs every three seconds. With this in mind, it’s vitally important that every person does everything in their power to protect their information.

If you suspect you have fallen victim to identity theft, the worst thing you can do is to do nothing. Don’t be too embarrassed or afraid to talk about it with someone you trust. Keep phone numbers handy of the people and organizations you may need to contact such as your bank, the police, credit card companies, etc. If your caregiver is the perpetrator, you may need to contact Adult Protective Services to get the help you need. Eldercare Locator can help you obtain contact information for Adult Protective Services in your area. You can reach them online or by calling them at 800-677-1116.

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