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Identity Theft

Identity theft is a major problem that has become the fastest growing crime in the United States.

In fact, it is estimated that each year more than 10 million Americans are affected, many of whom are seniors. According to the Federal Trade Commision, identity theft among seniors increased by 218% between 2000 and 2001 (over 5800 victims over 60 years old). Here's what you should know.

ID Theft - by definition occurs when someone obtains access to your Social Security number, bank or credit card account number, or other identifying information and uses it to steal from you. In essence they attempt to become you - so that any debts they rack up become yours or anything they do will be traced back to you.

There are many different ways for this to occur and certainly the Internet is one of them. But make no mistake - it is not the only method.

For example, they can get it by stealing your purse or wallet, taking your mail, rummaging through your trash or simply asking you for it through some type of scam. The Internet is a fascinating and useful tool - and you should not be afraid to use it. But like everything else the number 1 rule is Common Sense.

There are a number of reasons seniors are especially prone to scams according to the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department.

Older people make appealing financial targets because they typically have higher credit lines, greater home equity and more financial resources than younger populations.

Many seniors especially are hesitant to ask questions for fear they will look silly or incompetent. Many adult children treat their parents as if they were not capable of making a decision and the parents don't want that feeling of helplessness or to justify the children's thoughts.

Many seniors grew up in a day when your word was your bond and houses were all unlocked. They have a natural (and wonderful) instinct toward trust. Sadly, the unscrupulous people in this world take advantage of that. So when someone says they will help a senior with some transaction, but need just a little more information or to "verify" information the senior is often more likely to give it.

Seniors are kind. When they get an e-mail telling them somebody is sick or abused or missing they are more likely to give their checking account information to donate "just $10.00" to a so-called worthy cause. Of course once the account information is given that $10.00 has no limit. They have provided the thief with the information they need to take over their identity.

Seniors are often lonely. A senior in a chat room with brand new "best friends" is unfortunately more apt to give up information if they are homebound or not around a lot of people.

This is not to say chat rooms are not good - they can be a lot of fun. Once again, we go back to the need for COMMON SENSE and CAUTION! There is no reason a friendly chat should include the exchange of personal information.

Seniors are also often embarrassed to tell a family member or a friend what they have done so they attempt to cover up the problem rather than report it. This gives the criminal time to do more damage in the senior's name.

Some general hints:

Next time you have checks printed, only have your initials put on the checks -not your full name. If someone gets hold of your check book they won't know if you use your initials or your full name as a signature. If they make the wrong choice it will flag it as questionable to the bank cashing the check.

Never put your social security number on anything that is going to be viewed by anyone else such as your drivers license. Just because a clerk in a store or someone else asks for your social security number or other personal information, you don't have to give it.

When you leave a restaurant be sure to hand the signed credit card receipt directly to your server - don't leave it sitting on the table, even though they often tell you that's okay.

Check your accounts and statements immediately upon receipt - and thoroughly. If something doesn't look right - ask!

Get a copy of your credit report every year. Again, if it doesn't look right - ask!

Some Internet tips

Read the article on about Intenret e-mail scams such as phishing.

Legitimate companies such as banks and credit card companies will NEVER send you an email requesting account information.

As an example, if you get an email (or phone call) from someone purporting to be Discover Card asking you to click on a link and supply information DON'T DO IT! If you have any thought that it may be legitimate - go to the internet and type in the Discover card address yourself, without using the link provided in the email. You'll find there's nothing on there asking for the information the would-be-thief was looking for.

If you shop online be sure it is a company that you are familiar with. If they ask you if you want them to remember your account number for future use, say No. It is much easier to have to re-enter the number each time than to try and recover a stolen identity

Do not open email attachments from people you don't know.

Never give anyone account information or banking information or information of ANY kind no matter how worthy their cause sounds, or how sick the poor child they are talking about is. When they ask you to send money to help find Little Susie, chances are very good that Little Susie is really the person sending the email and all she's looking for is your identity.

The worst cause of ID theft is Social engineering. Social engineering is when people pretend to be with the bank or doctors office or credit card company or whatever and try to get info from you. Often they say "there has been a threat to your account, we just need to verify... Don't do it.

If you suspect you've been a victim, or have even been approached contact the police. Then call your bank or financial institutions where you suspect the illegal activity may have occurred.

Also, call the 3 top credit reporting companies and have them put a Fraud Alert on your account.

And finally, call the Federal Trade Commision Task Force on Identity Theft.

Social Security Administration (fraud line):

Free annual copy of credit report from three major credit reporting agencies (877) 322-8228, or visit

Have your email address removed from Credit Card solicitations. 1-888-567-8688.

Fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus to place a "fraud alert" on your credit file (Equifax (800) 525-6285, Experian (888) 397-3742 and Trans Union (800) 680-7289).

Federal Trade Commission ID theft hotline at (877) 438-4338.

Don't be frightened away from using the Internet. There are thousands of wonderful, informative and safe websites (like this one!) out there. Use common sense in your Internet browsing just as you would in your phone calls and face-to-face communications.

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