Although identity theft can happen to anyone, seniors may be seen as easy targets for identity thieves. Seniors have the tendency to be more trusting and susceptible to scammers. Also, most seniors receive some type of stable income, which is appealing from a financial standpoint. Because of these circumstances, seniors need to be aware of identity theft scams and how to prevent them.
"Identity thieves love older people because they are vulnerable," says Joe Buckheit, president/publisher of AgingCare.com, a site dedicated to elderly caregivers. "They are often socially isolated and lonely, tend to be trusting and vulnerable, and may have early dementia or memory loss. This is the perfect victim profile for an identity thief to prey upon. Too often, seniors are like sitting ducks."
Identity theft occurs when victims aren't paying attention to their assets. Most seniors aren't constantly checking their accounts online for any unknown changes, according to Jake Stroup, an identity theft writer at About.com. When surfing the Internet, seniors should be aware of fake look-alike websites. Buckheit warns about online phishing. That's when a thief poses as a bank or well-known company and sends a spam e-mail to "verify" the victim's account information or Social Security number.
"Seniors may also take longer to notice that a theft has occurred," says Mike Prusinski, vice president of corporate communications at LifeLock, an identity theft protection company. "Since the majority probably do not do online activity, like checking their bank accounts and statements, the thief can get away with the crime longer and unnoticed and, in most cases, will do more damage, and the thieves know this."
Sally Hurme, an AARP expert on identity theft, says that phone calls about account information should be red flags. A criminal will call and persuade the victim to give information in order to verify certain accounts, such as credit cards, according to Prusinski. The victim believes he is giving personal information to a reliable source. Instead, the criminal takes the account numbers and then opens new lines of credit or depletes bank accounts. Buckheit says thieves may even call older people pretending to represent charitable organizations.
Criminals not only will steal personal mail but also will mail scams to seniors. The mailed documents seem to come from trusted sources, such as banks. Often the documents contain "official-looking" logos or letterhead, according to Buckheit. Thieves will steal outgoing or incoming mail from mailboxes or even rummage through garbage cans looking for personal and financial information. Hurme says a locked mailbox or a mail slot is securer. Avoid leaving outgoing bills or personal envelopes in the mailbox for the carrier. Shred any personal documents (bank statements, credit card solicitations, financial documents, etc.) before throwing them in the trash.
The common use of Social Security numbers adds to the identity theft issue. "Lots of businesses and organizations use the number because they can and it's the one nationally recognized number that almost everyone has and that stays with you for life," according to Tom Margenau, writer of the syndicated column "Your Social Security." Margenau recommends leaving your Social Security card and Medicare card in a safe place at home. Avoid carrying it in your wallet unless you really need it.
Identity theft can take place anywhere -- over the phone, online, through the mail, at the ATM, at a restaurant or during a data breach. Buckheit recommends only providing information when you know the receiver and have initiated contact. Be aware of your credit cards, and observe those who use them at restaurants or stores. Stroup advises looking at your credit report on a consistent basis. Prusinski suggests a credit freeze through a major credit bureau, which will stop anyone from opening new lines of credit. Avoid putting your Social Security number on bank checks or your driver's license, according to Hurme. And identity theft protection companies, such as LifeLock, can provide additional help in preventing identity scams.
"Thieves are trying to catch you off-guard," Hurme says. "They try to make stories that are conceivable."