The Equifax data breach has brought the risk of identity theft to the forefront of people’s minds. As more and more people use the internet for everything from banking to personal correspondence, so online criminals have more and more opportunities for identity theft. Identity thieves also attack vulnerable people in their local community.
Why Seniors Are Vulnerable To Identity Theft
As early as 2014, the Federal Trade Commission reported that senior identity theft was on the rise¹.
There are several reasons why seniors are vulnerable to identity theft:
- Seniors generally have more assets and more access to capital than younger generations, making them attractive targets.
- Seniors tend to be more trusting of people and more positive about life, making it easier for criminals to get their information.
- Seniors don’t tend to check their credit scores or keep an eye on their bank account as frequently as younger people.
- Seniors often rely on caregivers, neighbors, and their local community for support, leaving older adults more vulnerable to scams.
What Can Criminals Do With Personal Information?
Identity thieves gather information such as:
- Birth date
- Home address
- Financial details such as bank details or credit cards
- Social security details
- Passport or driving license number
- Online login credentials
- Medical records
Thieves can use this information to do everything from making purchases to taking out a loan to getting medical treatment.
Related: The Doctor Uwadia Amenifo Scam
What Seniors Can Do To Guard Against Identity Thieves
The thought of identity theft is scary. With senior identity theft on the rise, it’s important for seniors to get educated about identity theft so they know what steps to take to avoid it.
Here are some easy things seniors can do to keep their personal identity safe:
Keep important documents safe.
Vital documents such as social security numbers, medical insurance details, or financial papers, should be kept locked up in a safe area of the home. It’s best to avoid carrying important documents or too much identifying information when out and about.
Stay safe online.
More and more seniors are getting online these days – and that’s a wonderful thing. However, seniors need to be careful online. Only enter personal details at trusted sites, and be aware that genuine emails from banks or Government agencies will never ask for account numbers or sensitive login details.
Seniors should keep their computers protected using anti virus software, or even using a VPN, which is a virtual private internet connection that hides their identity online (a trusted caregiver can set this up). Seniors who love to get social on Facebook or Twitter should be mindful of not sharing too many personal details.
Be careful when sharing information.
It’s a sad fact that seniors are in danger of identity theft not only from strangers online, but from those around them. Seniors are often vulnerable and rely on caregivers or neighbors for help. Seniors can protect themselves by only sharing personal information when absolutely necessary, and only with truly trusted people.
Caregivers can help by talking to the senior in their life about identity theft and the importance of being careful who they talk to. Caregivers should encourage seniors to exercise caution when answering the telephone or the door, and instill the importance of not sharing information with unexpected callers.
Shred documents before trashing them.
Thieves can get a lot of vital information from the trash and it’s not at all uncommon for them to go through garbage looking for bank, medical, or social security details. A shredder is an inexpensive and effective way to destroy documents before trashing them.
Keep an eye on banks and credit cards.
Seniors should keep a close eye on all their financial transactions. It’s a good idea to check bank and credit card statements monthly, and credit reports twice a year. Some banks offer free monitoring and will alert account holds to suspicious activity. There are also independent services that offer alerts for a small fee.
There are other ways to stay safer financially, too. Switching to an EMV chip card instead of a magnetic strip card is a smart idea, as they are harder to hack. Finally, seniors can apply a credit report freeze that means no one can apply for loans or other financial products using their details (the freeze also applies to the senior, so this option is only suitable if they aren’t planning to take out a loan.)
Be mindful of the mail.
The mailbox provides ample opportunities for thieves to get personal information. Seniors should be careful of leaving mail lying around. it’s worth investing in a lockable mailbox – although it means carriers can’t pick up outgoing mail, it also means thieves can’t pick up mail from the box.
If getting to the mailbox is a problem, seniors can apply for a secure PO Box and appoint a trusted caregiver to collect the mail for them.
Finally, any payments or mail containing sensitive information (such as insurance or medical details) should be mailed from a post office, not left in the mailbox for carriers to collect.
Identity theft is a sad reality for a growing number of seniors. However, by taking some easy steps, seniors can keep their information safe so they can continue to enjoy communicating online (and in their local community) while protecting themselves.
Tips to Stay Safe From Senior Identity Theft
Identity theft is a serious crime that requires more time and resources to recover from than is needed to perpetrate it. While there will always be opportunists who lunge at any chance to access bank accounts, credit cards, abuse tax forms or play with a superior credit rating, many identity thieves consider the elderly to be prized marks. Older adults tend to have better credit ratings and more liquid assets than other potential targets and they also tend to more easily fall for tech-based cons. This guide exists to give caregivers a leg up on the world of identity thieves in order to better protect their loved one's finances.
We cover lots of topics like this, see other posts about legal and financial issues.
Identity Theft Over the Phone
Two of the most common approaches taken by scammers are:
- Posing as an authority (like the IRS agent) over the phone to request private information
- Posing as a “long-lost” relative who has fallen on hard times and needs a cash bailout.
Talk to your loved one to avoid picking up unknown numbers. If a seemingly legitimate organization cold calls for private information like a social security number, hang up, verify the number's authenticity and call the party back if needed.
Avoid Door-to-Door Scams
One of the best deterrents to door-to-door scams is a home security system. Although there are numerous reputable brands you can choose from, it would be wise to research multiple options in order to find the best one suited to you and your family’s needs. While a variety of security systems exist, even a basic camera system gives you leverage in the event that someone tries to make off with your protected personal items. Even the mere presence of a camera system can deter a large chunk of potential thieves at your door or your mailbox.
Learn How to Protect Your Passwords
A password is useless if it's a very simple phrase. Did you know the most popular passwords are “123456” and “password”? A good password is one that mixes numbers, symbols and letters in both upper and lower case. An ideal password incorporates all of these characters without being a real word. You should also schedule a regular change of passwords, even on devices like a home security system's console.
Frequently Check on Your Credit Score
American citizens are allowed one free credit check with each of the major agencies per year. By checking with one agency every four months, you greatly increase your chances of noticing any sudden, unexpected spikes or drops in your credit score. If you'd like a dedicated assessment of your credit score, you can sign up for a credit monitoring service.
Get a Quality Paper Shredder
Dumpster diving for documentation of personal information is one of the many tricks in an identity thief's toolkit. One of the best ways of foiling such schemes is to invest in a quality paper shredder. While most major tax documents should be retained for at least three years, any documents older than three years could be dumped in a shredder. This also extends to receipts, expired credit cards, used checks and unused checkbooks. In fact, if a document is in question, shred it.
Watch Your Credit Cards Like a Hawk
LifeLock recommends paying in cash when possible. While a thief might make off with some bills, cash is a finite source of money. A credit card is tantamount to a blank check. If you must make a transaction in person, make sure that you keep your eyes on the card handler. If you make transactions online, make sure that the site's URL begins in “https” as the S stands for “secure.”
While identity thieves can strike from a variety of angles, you have just as many defenses at your disposal. By regularly watching credit cards and credit history, educating your senior loved ones about current scams, shredding sensitive documentation and regularly cycling through passwords, you can ensure that your elders' identity and finances will be safe and sound.