If you’re over 60 years old, be careful. Criminals take more than $36 billion from older Americans every year through financial abuse and outright fraud. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins called financial fraud against the elderly “a growing epidemic.”
Part of the problem: elderly identity theft. The number of victims increased from 2.1 million in 2012 to 2.6 million in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In this article, we’ll examine why older Americans may be more vulnerable than other segments of the population, the kinds of identity-theft scams often used against the elderly, and how you can help protect yourself.
7 tips to help fight senior identity and financial fraud
Let’s start with seven tips on how you, as a senior, can help protect yourself from identity and financial fraud. It may pay to keep these in mind no matter what your age.
- Hang up the phone – If someone calls asking for personal or financial information, do not feel obligated to provide it. It’s OK to hang up. If the person claims to be with your bank or credit card company, you can always call the number you have for them.
- Type in the URL yourself – Don’t click on email links or open email attachments, even if the message appears to be from your bank or credit card company. Doing so may put your personal information or your computer at risk. If you’re inclined to visit the website, type in the URL that you have for the business.
- Use direct deposit – Have Social Security and other benefit checks deposited directly into your bank account. This helps protect them from being stolen.
- Be wary of family – Over 90 percent of all reported elder abuse is committed by the older person’s own family, most often by their adult children. Make sure those you trust are trustworthy.
- Review your statements – It pays to regularly review your bank, credit card and other statements, looking for unfamiliar transactions. If you see something that doesn’t look right, call right away.
- Shred documents – Bank statements, healthcare records, and other papers with personal information should be shredded before you discard them. Make it as difficult as you can for identity thieves to take advantage of you.
Why seniors may be more vulnerable
The ultimate goal for any identity thief is to collect a victim’s Social Security number. Add that number to other personal information that’s often more easily obtainable—full name, address, date of birth—and a thief has what’s needed to steal a person’s identity.
Why target the elderly? They may be more trusting. In a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, people were asked, “Do you feel that most people can be trusted?” So-called boomers, born 1946 to 1964, gave the highest percentage of “Yes” answers. The FBI notes that those who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were generally raised to be polite and trusting. Con artists, the FBI says, exploit these traits.
Also, a study at the University of California, Los Angeles, showed that older adults might have diminished “gut responses” to cues of untrustworthiness.
“The elderly are prime targets for identity thieves because they are often easy to trick into providing personal information over the phone or in response to an email that can be used to make them victims of identity theft,” says Steven J.J. Weisman, Esq., a white-collar crime professor at Bentley University in Amherst, Massachusetts, and author of the book, “Identity Theft Alert.”
Good credit reports aren’t the only reason criminals target older Americans. Forbes magazine reports that older boomers are wealthier than the generation before them.
To get their hands on the seniors’ personal information and money, identity thieves can steal mail, “dumpster dive," or even impersonate government officers—like a Medicare official or an Internal Revenue Service agent. Once the thieves have such critical personal data, it’s easy for them to commit financial fraud—just as they would for a victim of any other age.
Typical identity theft scams targeting the elderly
The scams that identity thieves use to target seniors are similar to the ones used to target other victims. Among them:
Identity thieves target seniors over the telephone, looking to gain their trust to gain personal and financial data that can be used to commit fraud. As noted above, thieves can pretend to be a person in authority to solicit information, and they may employ a sense of urgency that prompts the victim to move quickly, without taking time to think about the consequences.
Online con artists often “phish” for personal data through email, transmitting seemingly legitimate requests that claim information is needed by the senior victim’s bank, credit card, or mortgage company. The criminals may ask seniors to verify their financial data (like account numbers and Social Security numbers).
A Personal Story
It’s not always personal information that criminals want. Sometimes it’s money—a bit of that $35 billion we mentioned earlier.
Just ask Kay Bransford, a money manager and author of “MemoryBanc: Your Workbook for Organizing Life.”
“The largest segment is exploitation—when businesses, individuals, or charities use pressure tactics or misleading language to lead seniors into financial mistakes,” Bransford says.
Bransford has personal experience with elderly identity fraud. “My parents were preyed upon, and the source of the fraud was surprising,” she says.
“Charities that send requests for money that look like pledges got my parents to start donating out of their normal annual giving cycle,” Bransford says. “My parents both had cognitive issues (memory loss) and weren't sure they didn't promise money, so they ended up sending out checks thinking they were fulfilling a promise made.”
Bransford also has seen older clients compromised in a “drip-by-drip” fashion—another favored tactic by identity thieves. “I see a wide variety of scams on a monthly basis,” she says. “One client was giving away over $2,000 in $20 and $30 increments. When asked, she wasn't even sure what the charities were doing with her money.”
Who’s on your side?
As a senior, it’s important for you to have someone “on your side” to help with questions about financial and other important matters. That said, given the risk some family members and friends may pose, identifying a trusted confidante isn’t always easy. The Eldercare Locator, a service of the U.S. Administration on Aging, may be able to connect you to services in your area that can help.
Combatting senior identity theft doesn’t have to be scary or uphill fight. You’ve learned a lot over the years and, likely, know how to protect yourself. Watch out for identity thieves acting by email, phone, at your door, or on the Internet. Practice what to say or do if someone asks for your personal information or financial data, even if they appear to be trustworthy or acting in an official capacity.
No doubt, you’ve heard—and even said—“better safe than sorry” many times. It still applies, perhaps even more so when sharing even a small amount of personal information can cause big problems.