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Regardless of age, we are all at risk of becoming a victim of identity theft – but senior citizens are at a particularly higher risk.
According to the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging, older Americans lose $3 billion dollars a year in financial scams. Technical support scams, sweepstakes, fraudulent business opportunities, and family or friend imposter scams are among the most common ways seniors fall victim to identity theft and financial fraud.
In this article, we will cover the facts surrounding senior identity theft, financial theft, and how to prevent senior fraud.
Why Seniors are Vulnerable to Identity Theft
According to the 2019 online survey hosted by The Harris Poll, more than 60 million Americans have been impacted by identity theft in one way or another. Javelin Strategy & Research estimate that the number of people who will become a victim of identity theft is on the rise. Unfortunately, the elderly fall victim to identity theft and financial fraud all too often.
Groups Most Targeted for Identity Theft:
- Child identity theft (Anyone under 18 years of age)
- High-income individuals
- Social Media influencers
- Senior Citizens
Seniors are one of the primary targets for scam artists, and there are several reasons for this.
Although data breaches and other financial scams exposed millions of people in the U.S. to identity theft, older Americans often have access to their retirement funds – therefore have a good chunk of money in their accounts. The elderly spend more time in doctors offices and are using more government services, which also increases their risk of becoming a victim of identity fraud or theft due to the fact that they’re accessing two industries that are highly targeted by cybercriminals, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center. Their information is easier to access, putting it at the top of the list in cases of compromised data breach.
Fraudster’s also consider the fact that with aging comes changes in one’s mental health. For example, some seniors end up with some form of dementia such as Alzheimer’s, which affects their ability to make clear decisions. Identity thieves also take into account a seniors living situation – they know many seniors live alone and this may make them even easier targets. By using emotional response tactics, fraudster’s are able to convince a senior that their grandchild is “kidnapped”, or that they are facing arrest from the IRS if they “don’t pay this off”. Providing seniors with a strong support system can help prevent the emotional leverage used by scam artists from working.
Types of Senior Identity Theft
People 60 years of age and older are significantly more likely to report a tech scam, and less likely to report retail-related scams, particularly when they involve financial loss – according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In fact, scams aimed towards seniors have grown so much over the last few years, it has been nicknamed :the crime of the 21st century”. Because these crimes can be difficult to prosecute against, they go unreported far too often.
That said, there are a variety of scams out there that were made to target seniors and older adults out of their money, or to steal their identity. And seniors from all demographics, both wealthy and low-income, are at risk of identity theft. Here are the most common types of senior identity theft that both seniors, and their family members, should look out for:
Although today’s senior is likely to own a computer, they may not be as tech-savvy as younger generations are. Due to that fact, elderly persons are at a high risk for automated internet scams.
These scams often come as pop-ups, and look similar to virus scanning software programs. They entice the viewer to download some fake anti-virus software, only to ask for money or a credit card number in order to complete the download. If the program doesn’t ask for money, it is likely that it is attaching a virus to the computer, which will then collect the computer owners personal information. These visus’ can collect previous credit or debit card information, passwords and usernames. Any information that has been put into that computer.
Another common tech scam involves receiving a phone call, warning an individual that there may be a “virus” on their computer or that their computer’s software is out of date and needs to be replaced. Often, the caller will ask for credit card numbers, email addresses and passwords in order to “fix” this “problem”.
Email and Phishing Scams
Another prevalent identity scam seen used on the senior population are phishing emails. These emails are used to gather personal information as well as to steal funds from the victim. Displaying themselves as high level organizations or companies, scammers will threaten seniors over email using extremely persuasive language. By urging the need for immediate action, the recipient’s focus is targeted on the dyer importance of completing the task at hand, rather than considering where the email came from.
Examples of phishing scams include receiving a fake email from companies like PayPal, Amazon, FedEx, USPS, your bank, Netflix, and several others:
- The email appears to be legit, directly from the company itself, asking you to verify or update personal information
- They may mention that your account is about to expire or your membership is being canceled, and you need to “contact” the company right away
- Suggesting or indicating that your personal record needs to be updated (often used when scammers are pretending to be with a government organization)
- Stating you missed the delivery of a package you aren’t/weren’t expecting
- Claiming that your account is “locked” and you need to confirm it by clicking on the link below (a bogus link – likely with a virus attached to it)
- Claiming your account is suspended and you need to update your credit or debit card information
- Receiving offers of unexpected payments or refunds from the IRS or another organization
Worse yet, spear-phishing scams often include YOUR personal information inside of them, and can be especially difficult to ignore. This is because the scammer(s) have taken the time to gather your personal information prior to the attack, and already have some “insider information” on you. This can make a phony email seem legitimate, and this is where a lot of people fall victim to identity theft. Often, spear-phishing attacks come from fake emails or calls claiming to be your bank, a company you work for or used to work for, clubs or organizations you are a member of, etc. Red flags are much harder to see when you’re attacked by a spear phisher.
Social Security Identity Theft & IRS Scams
When it comes to social security identity theft, victims are often attacked near tax season. For example, a fake IRS representative calls insisting you owe back taxes you supposedly have not paid, then demands you pay immediately or they will arrest you or take your home through foreclosure. Criminals may also use your social security number to avoid paying their own taxes.
5 Types of Identity Theft using a Social Security Number:
- Government Identity Theft – Government identity theft occurs when a person uses your personal information within interactions with the U.S. government. For example, if someone uses your social security number in addition to your personal information to file a tax return in your name, confiscating the funds for themselves. This is known as Stolen Identity Refund Fraud (SIRF) and results in said person stealing from the U.S. Treasury in your name.
- Criminal Identity Theft – If a person uses your Social Security number when dealing with law enforcement, this is called criminal identity theft. Let’s say someone gets arrested and gives officers your Social Security number, you would be issued an arrest warrant instead of the criminal.
- Financial Identity Theft – People use financial identity theft in order to increase their finances. These thieves can use your Social Security number, other information on your that they’ve gathered and your good credit to apply for additional credit cards in your name. They’ll use those credit cards without paying them back, in turn damaging your credit score. Additionally, you may begin to receive calls from creditors demanding you pay your credit card off – for goods you didn’t purchase yourself. Financial identity theft includes credit card fraud, bank fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, computer fraud, and employment fraud.
- Medical Identity Theft – If someone uses your Social Security number in order to receive emergency care and treatment, they’d be committing medical identity theft. You would then receive a bill in the mail for the care “you” (the scammer) received. One of the worst aspects of medical identity theft, is the fact that you may be in danger and unable to receive care later in life, as you now have a flag on your account for “misinformation”.
- Utility Fraud – Utility fraud is when a person uses your Social Security number and information to open utility service contracts, or to upgrade their current services on already existing accounts.
To add insult to injury, once your Social Security number is compromised, it can then be sold on the dark web and used numerous times by other criminals and fraudsters. In other words, once someone has your Social Security number, they can become you. They’ll be able to collect tax refunds, commit crimes, collect income and benefits, use your health insurance, establish residences and more under your name.
It can be hard to pick up the pieces left behind when a Social Security number is stolen, but there are steps you can take to begin this process. Check out the Social Security Administration’s pamphlet titled Identity Theft and Your Social Security Number for answers to your questions, and what to do if you ever lose your Social Security card.
Social Media Identity Theft
Social media outlets provide a great and convenient way to keep up with friends and family, even from a distance. However, fraudsters may use your social media accounts to learn more about you, your financial situation, where you work, and other personal information. These days, finding someone’s birthday is as easy as checking their Facebook account. While LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram can be great sources of connectivity, particularly for seniors who feel lonely or distanced from family, always be smart about what you post on these accounts. You never know who is going to see your posts and potentially use the information you share against you.
Other Senior Identity Theft Schemes
The FBI made a statement recently, saying, “People who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were raised to be polite and trusting. Con artists exploit these traits, knowing it’s difficult…. For these individuals to say ‘no’.” As previously mentioned, identity theft crimes often go unreported, either out of embarrassment or simply being unaware of who to call and inform. Either way, it is important to know what scams seniors frequently encounter.
- Advanced Fee Schemes – This is where a fraudster convinces the victim that if they pay a certain amount, they will get something of greater value in return. For example, a loan, investment, contract, etc.
- Telemarketing Fraud – The best (and only) way to ensure you are not a victim to telemarketing fraud, never give away personal information or financial information to someone over the phone.
- Bank Account Theft – If a criminal gains access to your bank account, you must report it and take action immediately.
- Credit Card Fraud – This occurs when a fraudster uses your credit or debit card information for their own financial gain.
- Military Identity Theft – Criminals have found a way to use a service member’s personal information to claim their military benefits for themselves.
- Wire Transfer Fraud – Fraudster’s may use a person’s personal information in order to electronically transfer money from their victims account into their own.
- Estate Identity Theft or Funeral Fraud – Unfortunately, fraudsters have discovered a way to steal from the deceased. By following obituaries and using sensitive information, or personally identifiable information (PII) such as birth dates, hometowns, and any other information they can “score”. Scammers will then turn up at funerals and take advantage of grieving family members, or rob the home of the person who passed on while the family is attending their funeral.
- Romance Scams – Seniors who are on dating sites can become victim to a phenomenon known as a “romance scam”. They pose as another person, and slowly collect personal information about the senior. They may suddenly say they need money for a “financial crisis”, and ask that the victim sends them some, or provide a credit card number.
How to Prevent Senior Identity Theft
Now that you’re aware of the many ways in which senior identity theft occurs, you may want to know how identity theft protection for seniors works.
Here are some tips to help protect seniors from identity theft:
- Ensure that all phone numbers and contact information for family, friends, health providers, insurance providers, and other important people in a safe place. That way, if someone calls posing as your “health insurance representative”, you’ll know better.
- When a call comes in and you don’t recognize the number, allow it to go to voicemail. Scammers almost never leave voicemail messages, and if it really is an important call, the true caller will leave a message for you.
- Keep in mind that government agencies send letters regarding important or personal information. They almost never call or send emails.
- Hire a financial advisor or daily money manager to check your finances, credit and debit card transactions looking for anything suspicious. These accounts should be reviewed regularly.
- Never carry your Social Security card around with you. Keep it at home in a safe and secure place.
- If a stranger calls and you aren’t sure who they are, or if you don’t think they are who they say they are, do not be afraid to simply hang up. And if they call back, don’t answer! Better safe than sorry.
- Whenever possible, have checks and money orders direct-deposit into your bank account. This helps reduce any risk of the check getting into the hands of a fraudster.
- When you need help – ASK! Your friends and family members would be happy to help you regarding any scenario you think may be a scam.
- Remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it most likely is. If you’re getting threatening messages, you’re probably dealing with a scammer. Reputable institutions and companies would never threaten their customers, even if money is owed.
In addition to these tips, you may consider investing in identity theft protection services. These are generally low-cost, and help keep your personal information secure.
If Identity Theft Occurs, What Should I Do?
If you feel that you may be one of the identity theft victims, contact the FTC immediately and open an identity theft case. Once you’ve done this, the FTC will provide you with an affidavit, which you can take to your local station and file a police report. You should also contact your state and federal government agencies, like the IRS and Medicare offices to warn them of the case. You may also want to consider letting the Attorney General’s office know of the situation, depending on how severe it was/is. Always go over your credit and debit card accounts, as well as your credit report to see if any suspicious activity has ensued. If so, alert the credit agencies and credit bureaus to inform them of your identity being stolen. The same goes for pre-approved credit cards or any new accounts opened in your name. Although the fraud has already occurred, these steps will help you reduce the damage sooner rather than later. When a fraudster steals a person’s identity, it impacts them in more ways than just financially, their security feels taken from them. Follow the tips we mentioned above in order to help prevent identity theft.