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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 worldwide 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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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):
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Since graduating from Harvard with an honors degree in Statistics, Jeff has been creating content in print, online, and on television. Much of his work has been dedicated to informing seniors on how to live better lives. As Editor-in-Chief of the personal… Learn More About Jeff Hoyt