Senior citizens are often the targets of criminal activity, particularly identity theft and scams. Seniors can be targeted by telephone, through the mail, door-to-door or over the Internet. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. These criminals try to play on your good will and trust. They will try to fast talk you or trick you by representing themselves as a government agency or a bank wanting to verify information.
Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in America. All people must take steps to protect themselves from this crime. Once victimized, it can take years to clear your name.
ID theft occurs when thieves obtain your name, address, date of birth (DOB), and social security number (SSN). This information can be used, without your knowledge, to commit various types of fraud such as opening new credit cards in your name and draining your bank accounts.
Thieves get this information in a variety of ways. Some look through your trash (dumpster divers) or steal your wallet. ID theft also occurs when someone tricks you into giving this information out either through realisitc looking emails (phishing), letters or by telephone.
What are the warning signs that you may be the victim of ID theft? According to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, credit card fraud is the most common form of ID theft and prevented by simply staying diligent with your credit card statements. Statements that stop arriving, statements that have unknown charges, being denied credit for no apparent reason, and receiving bills from companies you don't recognize are all warning signs that you're the victim of ID theft.
How can you protect yourself?
The best way is to thwart thieves by denying them access to your information in the places where they look for it.
Trash: Shred important documents (anything that has your name, address, DOB and SSN) before throwing it out.
Wallet: Do not carry your social security card or your birth certificate in your wallet. Remove your social security number from your driver's license by requesting an "S" number at the Registry of Motor Vehicles. On the back of your credit cards, instead signing your name, write photo ID required. Photocopy all the contents of your wallet. Keep these copies in a safe and easily accessible place as they may be needed if your wallet/purse is stolen.
Mailbox: Do not place outgoing mail in your mailbox for pickup especially if they contain bills. Pick up new checks at the bank rather than having them mailed. When you are away on vacation ask someone to pick up your mail/newspaper or call the community's post office and your local newspaper distributor and ask them to hold your mail/newspapers, as an accumulation of mail/newspapers will signify to criminals that your not home. If you receive federal Social Security benefits, sign up for Direct Deposit or a Direct Express card. In addition to being more convenient than a paper check, you eliminate an opportunity for a thief to steal your money and your information.
Internet: Install a firewall to prevent thieves from hacking into your computer and stealing your personal information. Remember that your bank or credit cards will NEVER ask you to verity account information online or over the phone. If you receive an e-mail or telephone call from someone claiming that they need to verify your personal information DO NOT respond. You should only give out personal information out when you have initiated the contact.
Finally, monitor your credit by reviewing your credit report regularly. You are entitled to one free copy of this report annually. You can obtain a copy by contacting the credit reporting agencies list below.
If you become a victim you should take the following actions:
- Police Department: Call your local police department. Provide them with the numbers of the accounts that have been compromised, as it needs to be listed in the police report.
- Notify creditors and financial institutions: In writing and by phone, inform them that your name and accounts have been used without your permission.
- Federal Trade Commission (FTC): Report the crime to the FTC. The FTC collects complaints about ID Theft from consumers and stores them in a secure online database.
- Credit Report Agencies: Contact the fraud units of the three credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, Trans Union) and ask them to place a fraud alert on your credit report to help prevent new fraudulent accounts from being opened.
- Obtain a credit report from one of the above-mentioned credit agencies as you are entitled to a free one every year.
Trans Union............................................................... .(800)916-8800
Social Security.......................................................... ..(800)772-1213
Federal Trade Commission..................................... .(877)IDTHEFT
Scams can vary but the objective is the same, to trick the victim into giving the thief money or access to bank accounts. It can be done any number of ways and the perpetrators are very skilled. They may make you think someone you know is in trouble and needs money wired to them or that you have won a prize but you must first pay a tax or a fee. While the particulars are different, there are common tips to protect yourself.
- Remember that a legitimate business or government agency will NEVER call or email you asking you to verify account information, PIN numbers, social security or credit card numbers.
- If they won't put it in writing, don't do business with them.
- Ask questions.
- Don't feel pressured to "act now".
- Don't pay by cash or wire money.
- Don't be afraid to hang up or close the door.
- If you receive a letter or phone call or e-mail notifying you that you have won some kind of prize, be careful! This is most likely a scam.
- Check references.
- When contracting work, get a written contract that is signed and includes total price, a detailed description of the work, as well as starting and ending dates, as well as a payment schedule.
- Do not be embarrassed if you are a victim of a scam. If you believe you are a victim, contact your local police immediately.