For every high-profile data breach that graces the headlines – Target, Neiman Marcus, Home Depot – there are millions of others who become victims when small-time thieves steal personal information from mailboxes, lifted wallets or discarded trash.
“Identity theft and scams are America’s fastest growing crime,” said Michelle Backeroff, a Crime Prevention Specialist at the Turlock Police Department, adding that a growing number of victims are in the 65-plus age group. She presented “Tips for Avoiding Identity Theft and Scams” to a roomful of guests at Covenant Village of Turlock, a faith-based continuing care retirement community.
Why seniors? It’s nothing personal, she said, but more of a compliment for a generation that has lived a financially sound, responsible life. Seniors tend to have little debt and stellar credit, making it easy to obtain credit cards in their names. They own their own homes and are by nature a more trusting generation; and, since they’re less likely to monitor their finances as closely as their younger counterparts, they aren’t as quick to notice red flags.
Backeroff suggested simple steps to lower the chances of becoming a victim.
Shred, don’t toss – Criminals dig through the trash to find documents showing personal information, such as names, date of birth, and bank account or credit card numbers. Before tossing those personal documents in the trash, shred them first with a cross-cut shredder. Don’t own one? Check with your local police department or city government; most offer free shredding service to residents.
Monitor your finances – Review your financial statements and billing statements on a regular basis. Be on the lookout for charges you did not make and call the bank or credit card company immediately if there is unusual activity.
Safeguard personal information – Don’t give your personal information over the phone unless you initiated the call, and don’t share information through the mail or online unless you’re certain who you are dealing with. If a caller is trying to confirm your personal information, let them provide you with the information they are trying to confirm. Don’t offer any details.
Carry only what you need – Keep your Social Security card, passport, checkbook, and extra credit cards at home. Store these personal items in a secure place, such as a safe or locked file cabinet.
Be aware – Don’t let strangers see your personal identification numbers or hear you share personal information with others.
Watch your mail – Collect your mail promptly and when sending mail, drop it off at the post office, rather than leaving it in your mailbox for the carrier to pick up. Going on vacation? Request a vacation hold on your mail until you return. And, be alert to receiving unexpected credit cards or account statements, or not receiving bills as usual. These could be red flags that your finances have been compromised.
Pay using cash – Paying with cash is safest, but if you prefer using a debit or credit card don’t let cashiers walk out of sight with your card. When possible, patronize establishments where you slide the card yourself and, when pumping gas, use a credit card, not a debit card.
Surf safely – Use only one, low-limit credit card for online purchases. Limit the amount of personal information you share online and pick your PINs (personal identification numbers) carefully, avoiding any part of your Social Security number, your birth date, your pet’s name or your mother’s maiden name.
Lock your electronic devices – Set up passwords to access your phone, laptop and desktop computer to prevent unauthorized users from accessing your information.
Keep a list – Create a list with phone numbers to call if you lose your wallet or credit card.
If you think you’ve become victim, put a fraud alert on your credit reports by calling one of the following: Experian, Equifax or TransUnion. Then, report it immediately to your local law enforcement and to the Federal Trade Commission at (877) 438-4338.
Clearing your name and your credit is time-consuming and frustrating. Prevention is key. For more information, visit StopFraud.gov.
— Covenant Village of Turlock, a faith-based continuing care retirement, offers lectures and programming relevant to seniors. Visit www.covenantvillageofturlock.org or call 877-834-1238 for more information.