Identity theft is a growing epidemic, accounting for billions of dollars in losses each year. While any person can be the victim of identity theft, seniors are most vulnerable. Criminals take more than $36 billion from older Americans via fraudulent means each year and target as many as 2.6 million individuals. Why are seniors so vulnerable, and what can they do to protect themselves and their finances?
What Is Identity Theft?
Identity theft refers to the act of using someone's name or personal information without his or her permission to commit a crime or fraud. Such information may include a person's social security number, name, birthdate, credit card number or any other personally identifying data. Because of the varied types of identifying information one has, there are countless ways criminals can exploit consumer information, and offenders are constantly looking for innovative ways to do just that.
How Can Data Be Stolen?
Unfortunately, in today's digital age, your information is always at risk for theft and can be stolen long before you realize you are even a victim. Because of this, many people do not realize their privacy has been breached until they receive an overdraft notice from their bank, they review a credit card statement or, in the worst-case scenario, a creditor initiates debt collection actions. In short, most people do not realize what hit them until it is too late. This is because identity theft schemes are often well-thought-out and the tactics criminals use virtually undetectable. That said, it helps to know how data can be stolen so you can be on the lookout for any suspicious activity. Some of the more common identity theft tactics include the following:
- Internet hacking
- Data breaches
- Malware activity
- Mail theft
- Phishing scams
- ATM skimmers
- IRS scams
- Wi-Fi hacks
- Mobile phone hacks
Though elderly individuals are susceptible to each of these scams, criminals often use one of two types of tactics to target the elderly: telephone scams and internet scams. Common telephone scams include threatening IRS scams, bank fraud calls, lottery scams and pretending that a family member is in trouble. Common internet scams include fake surveys, mystery shopper scams, Nigerian check scams and hijacked social media profile scams.
Why Are Elderly Americans so Vulnerable to Identity Theft?
Everyone has the internet, a telephone and bank card, so why are the elderly most at risk for identity theft? The answer is fairly simple: They trust people more than any other generation does.
In a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, researchers asked a group of people whether or not they believe people can be trusted. Baby-boomers, or those born between 1946 and 1964, gave the highest percentage of “Yes” answers. Researchers believe this is because individuals raised between 1930 and 1950 were raised to be polite and honest. Sadly, con artists know this about elderly individuals and use these positive traits to exploit money and information out of them.
Findings from another study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, suggest that elderly individuals have diminished “gut responses” to signs of deceit. Because of this diminished intuition, older people are easier to trick with little to no coercion. For instance, if the IRS calls an elderly person's home and says he or she owes back taxes, the elderly person has no reason to believe the phone call is a scam and will willingly provide his or her identifying information — including everything from name and birthdate to social security number — to stay out of trouble.
Additional reasons thieves target the elderly include outstanding credit ratings and wealth. More than 55% of individuals over the age of 60 have a credit rating of 750, compared with just 27% of those less than the age of 60. This is due to a number of factors, including an older credit report and less debt relative to credit limits and original loan amount (think of terms of car payments and mortgage).
Moreover, older generations are wealthier, thereby making elderly individuals more desirable targets. Due to 30 years of rapid wealth growth, baby-boomers are the wealthiest generation in history. In addition to three decades of unrelenting success, individuals born between 1925 and 1942 experienced a 32% increase in median household net worth between the years of 2013 and 2016 and a median net worth increase of 60%. While all generations experienced some wealth growth during that three-year period, the 75+ age group fared the best.
How Can Elderly Individuals Protect Themselves?
There are several steps older individuals can take to protect themselves, their personal information and their finances from identity theft. For one, they can educate themselves on what an identity theft scam looks like and be wary of its signs. For instance, everyone should be aware that the IRS does not make phone calls. If the agency wishes to contact someone, it will do so via mail correspondence.
Also, it should be a rule of thumb to never give out personal information over the phone or the internet unless one has solid proof that the person doing the collecting works with a legitimate agency and is collecting information for legitimate purposes. For instance, it is probably a safe bet to input one's personal information via a form downloaded from IRS.gov. It might not be safe to provide information via a form accessed by a pop-up ad.
Finally, all individuals, regardless of age, should invest in identity-protection software. IdentityForce has an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau and a 100% success rate for recovering information and identities stolen via identity-related events. IdentityForce also offers Child Watch, which serves to protect children under the age of 18, who also happen to be the fastest-growing segment of the population to be targeted by identity thieves. Some additional features IdentityForce offers include the following:
- Identity theft insurance
- Dark web monitoring
- Social media monitoring
- Criminal monitoring
- Financial monitoring
Identity theft is a growing concern for all age groups, but elderly individuals tend to be the most vulnerable. For this reason, if you are in your golden years, take additional measures to keep both your information and your finances safe. Be smart, educate yourself on new threats and invest in software and services designed to identify and prevent attacks.