Our senior citizens are often the most vulnerable to identity theft, which can damage reputations and wipe out life savings in an instant. A Met Life Mature Market Institute review of Senior Identity Theft estimates that elderly victims lose $2.9 billion annually to fraud. And those numbers will rise as the senior population grows.
Why are our seniors more susceptible to identity theft?
They say identity theft is the 21st century version of burglary and has been an official crime since 1998 in the U.S. Our eldest came from a generation that trusted people more. Baby boomers are more skeptical in general. But I think as you age, you want to believe in the goodness of people and that makes you more vulnerable.
Seniors are in more frequent contact with medical professionals who can steal their insurance information. There are all kinds of horror stories of home health and other long-term care workers who have scammed their clients.
What are some of the most common scams that attempt to defraud seniors and steal their identity?
Sometimes it's no fault of your own. For example, my mom's insurer recently sent a letter reporting they had been hacked. The sad part is you may hear about these things on the news before someone contacts you so be vigilant.
• Telemarketing/phone scams -- Have you gotten the IRS is suing you calls? I have. They're scary to me. Imagine how scary to a senior. The IRS will never call. Don't call those numbers back. Many elderly truly feel they will go to jail if they don't respond and pay immediately.
Seniors make twice as many purchases over the phone than the national average. Once a successful deal has been made, the buyer's name is then shared with similar schemers.
• Medicare Fraud -- Someone may pose as a Medicare representative to get older people to give them their personal information, or they will provide bogus services, bill Medicare and pocket the money. A new Medicare ID # is being phased in. People are already scamming victims offering to give them the new number for money.
• Tax Fraud -- A criminal files taxes using a stolen Social Security or Employee ID number to collect a victim's tax return.
• Synthetic Identity Theft -- This is a new version of identity theft. In traditional ID theft, the thief steals all of the personal information of one person to create a new identity. However, with synthetic ID theft, a thief steals pieces of information from different people to create a new identity.
• Funeral & Cemetery Scams -- Scammers read obituaries and call or attend the funeral service of a complete stranger to take advantage of the grieving widow or widower.
• Internet fraud -- Pop-up browser windows simulating virus-scanning software will fool victims into either downloading a fake anti-virus program or an actual virus that will open up whatever information is on the user's computer to scammers.
These are but a few. Reverse mortgage schemes, sweepstakes and lottery schemes, the grandparent scheme are others. The National Council on Aging's web site is a good resource for people. The IRS also publishes a "Dirty Dozen" list of most common scams every year.
So what can family caregivers and seniors do proactively to prevent fraud or find out about possible fraud sooner?
• Prevention is always your best option. Self-monitoring your credit will enable you to spot any issues and resolve them right away.
• You may want to consider signing up for identity theft protection. It can make the messy process of restoration less of a headache.
• Consider identity theft insurance. Identity theft insurance will cover money spent recovering your identity.
So professional services can be your eyes and ears. What should people be doing themselves?
• If you are hiring home health or other medical professionals do so from reputable agencies that require background checks.
• Get a home safe or a safe-deposit box so that documents containing personal and financial information are locked away.
• Shred, shred, shred.
• Consider a security wallet or handbag that protects against credit card skimming and theft. Don't carry your Social Security or Medicare card with you.
• Monitor your credit card, bank statements and medical bills. Thieves put test credits into bank accounts to see if it works then siphon money out if it does.
• Stealing mail is having resurgence. Retrieve your mail as soon as you can when at home. Stop mail when away. Get your statements online. As scary as it sounds online is the safest way to go.
Be on the alert if your utilities, banks, credit card companies or other businesses stop sending email or paper notifications, as identity thieves often change addresses to hide criminal activity from victims.
• Create strong passwords on your computer. Beware of mystery links. Install firewalls and virus-detection software.
• Learn your Smart Phone's security features.
Are there agencies you should report these incidents to when they occur?
• File a report with the Federal Trade Commission and your local police department. Once you file the ID theft with the FTC, you will have an ID theft affidavit. Print and take this with you to file the crime with the local police and get a police report.
• Long-term Care Identity Theft -- Report a claim to the long-term care ombudsman in your state, if the theft was a result of a stay in a nursing home or long-term care facility.
• Medical Identity Theft -- Contact your health insurance company's fraud department or Medicare's fraud office.
• Tax Identity Theft -- Report this type of ID theft to the Internal Revenue Service and your state's Department of Taxation or Revenue.
Also alert the credit reporting agencies, your financial institutions, retailers and other companies and State Consumer Protection Offices or the Attorney General.
Schemes are becoming more sophisticated and so each of us has to become equally sophisticated in protecting ourselves. Subscribe to my blog to keep on top of the latest news impacting caregivers and older adults.