Identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the U.S. Right now, more than 15 million U.S. residents have their identities stolen each year, with losses exceeding a total of $50 billion annually. While it’s true that identity theft can (And does) affect anyone, seniors are at increased risk. Today, senior identity theft is growing rapidly, and people ages 50 or older are frequently the target of scams and fraudulent activity. While various factors make seniors especially vulnerable to identity theft, deceased spouses, dementia and cognitive decline, a failure to check credit reports regularly, and often substantial saving or checking account balance are some of the primary draws for identity thieves. Luckily, there are many ways that friends and loved ones can help protect seniors from the burden of identity theft. Read on to learn more.
Why are Seniors Vulnerable to Identity Theft? While many factors influence seniors’ vulnerability to identity theft, including the ones mentioned above, the issue is complex and multi-faceted. Even seniors who aren’t affected by dementia or cognitive decline are frequently the target of identity theft, but why? On one hand, the answer may be generational. As a general rule, seniors grew up during a period when people were quick to trust one another, and credit card and banking scams were not as prevalent as they are today. Alternately, seniors are often concerned about not seeming dependent or overly needy, so they may not ask for help or verification from a friend or family member when something seems fishy, or when they receive an odd phone call asking for personal information. Finally, seniors may be at increased risk of identity theft because the human brain changes with age. According to a 2012 study conducted by psychologists at UCLA, senior citizens quite literally process risk differently than their younger companions. When presented with mildly risky or dangerous situations, the older people in the study displayed less activity in the portions of the brain responsible for responding to danger, which suggests that they may not recognize or respond to risk the same way as their younger counterparts. To help protect seniors from identity theft, it’s critical to understand the various factors that place them at increased risk.
12 Ways to Help Protect Seniors from Identity Theft
1. Find trustworthy caregivers While it may sound shocking, some of the main culprits in senior identity theft are the senior’s caregivers. Because these people have access to the senior’s personal documentation, credit cards, and checking account numbers, it’s easy for an unsavory caregiver to create fake accounts in the senior’s name or wreak havoc on checking and savings account balances. With this in mind, vet all caregivers thoroughly and consider conducting background searches and checking references. While this may seem paranoid, it’s the first (and arguably most critical) step in ensuring a senior’s identity remains safe and sound.
2. Help the senior be aware of common scams It’s reasonable for a senior to get excited about a phone call or email stating they’ve won a million dollars and, if nobody bothers to tell them about common scams and frauds, it may not occur to the senior that these types of interactions aren’t legitimate. With this in mind, seek to be informed about common frauds and scams and pass the information along to the senior citizen. The Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force operates a website called StopFraud.gov, which offers a wealth of information on common scams and how you can protect yourself and others. Check it regularly and keep your senior informed of what you learn. Better yet, turn the senior him or herself onto the website and have them check it frequently.
3. Monitor a senior’s financial activity One of the most efficient ways to keep a senior out of identity theft troubles is to monitor their financial activity carefully. Since many common scams come in the form of credit card or email scams, monitoring credit card and bank statements can be a useful way to catch fraudulent activity before it blows up.
4. Check in often While it may seem nosy, checking in often can help keep seniors safe from identity theft. Don’t hesitate to ask your senior friend or relative if they’ve received any suspicious calls or emails lately. While some seniors may get frustrated by these questions (believing they couldn’t possibly be the victims of identity theft), it’s worth it to ask. While it may cause a small tiff, the tough conversation is ultimately worth it if it protects the senior from financial or personal hardship. Soften the conversation by reminding the senior that identity scammers are excellent at what they do and that the scams may not even seem like scams.
5. Enroll the senior in identity theft protection There are various credit monitoring services designed to monitor personal and financial information for any red flags. Plans are affordable and can be a crucial tool in the ongoing battle for keeping seniors out of the clutches of identity theft.
6. Shred unneeded personal documents Old personal documents that contain sensitive information like the senior’s birth date, social security numbers or banking information should be shredded or burned. This prevents them from falling into the wrong hands (in many cities and states, it’s common for identity thieves to comb through trash on public streets in search of such documents) and causing havoc.
7. Verify the validity of any “Free” services gated with personal information Seniors are often targeted by scammers offering free or highly discounted medical services in return for personal information. While these proposals may seem outstanding, they’re often fraudulent. If the senior in your life receives any such offer, check the company with the Better Business Bureau before proceeding.
8. Encourage the senior to check credit reports often Since seniors are typically not applying for mortgages or other large loans, they may not check their credit reports as often as younger people. Unfortunately, this is how so much fraudulent activity goes unnoticed for so long. To be on the safe side, encourage the senior to check his or her credit report at least once a year. This can help keep tabs on financial and personal information and ensure it’s not being used incorrectly.
9. Help the senior understand link scams Many scammers masquerade as reputable companies and use fraudulent links to gain personal information. Help the senior understand how these scams work and how to stay safe: instead of supplying personal information via a questionable link, go directly to the company’s website and complete an application or sign-up process there.
10. Maintain open communication about phone scams Many identity scams use callers pretending to be court representatives or medical establishments, claiming outstanding balances for past bills. Instead of giving personal information to these callers, help the senior understand the need to call the company directly instead, and resolve the issue there.
11. Consider hiring an attendant In the grips of dementia or Alzheimer’s, many seniors begin to make risky financial decisions and become intensely vulnerable to scammers. If this is the case with your loved one, consider hiring a professional caregiver to keep the senior out of financial trouble and away from the clutches of scammers.
12. Get the senior a secure mailbox With a traditional, street-side mailbox, it’s easy for anyone to steal a senior’s sensitive mail. To protect your loved one, opt for a secure mailbox option like a post office or locking box.
Senior Identity Theft Stops Here Seniors are a vulnerable population when it comes to identity theft. Luckily, you can help your loved ones stay secure with these twelve helpful tips. In addition to protecting a senior’s personal and financial information, these steps also go a long way toward ensuring healthy, happy, secure golden years for the senior in your life.