How To Prevent Identity Theft
Identity theft tops the list of complaints the FTC receives each year, and seniors are consistently the group targeted the most often, making up 36% of identity theft victims in 2012. Identity theft occurs when a thief gets ahold of someone’s personal information – such as their social security number, birthdate, bank account or credit card number – and uses it to make purchases, apply for credit, or file taxes.
How Does Identity Theft Happen?
Scammers have figured out a number of different ways to discover someone’s personal information.
Phishing is the term used to describe the practice of sending emails that look like they’re from a respected source requesting that the respondent send personal information. Scammers often design these emails so that they appear to be coming from brands you likely do business with, like Paypal or Apple, so you’ll be tricked into sending them the information.
Legitimate businesses never ask for sensitive information over email, so don’t fall for it. If you ever need to provide a company with updated information, you can always call them at a number from their website or your receipt or bill, so you know you’re reaching someone who actually works for the company.
2. Phone call scammers
These guys pretty much do the same thing as phishers, but over the phone. They’ll try to convince you that they’re with a legitimate agency or that they have a prize giveaway for you in order to get you to hand over personal details. Again, you should never give out this information to someone you don’t know.
3. Personal theft
Part of what makes seniors an easy target for identity theft is that they encounter a lot of people who have access to personal information about them – caregivers, assisted living staff, admins at the hospital they go to – these people are often handed access to your personal data without a second thought. If they’re not trustworthy, working with them puts you at risk. This is the hardest type of identity theft to avoid, since it involves the betrayal of someone you should be able to professionally trust.
Those are the main methods of identity theft, but some thieves still perpetrate some of the older methods like stealing your wallet or purse, taking documents with sensitive information out of the trash, or swiping your mail in the hopes of encountering documents or offers with your sensitive information.
7 Tips to Prevent Identity Theft
Scammers are often savvy and come up with new methods every day for stealing people’s information, so you may not be able to completely protect yourself from identity theft. Even so, there are a lot of measures you can take to decrease your risks.
1. Keep all documents with personal information secure.
Your social security card, birth certificate and any documents with sensitive financial information should be stored in a safe place where only people you trust can access it. That may be a safe deposit box at the bank or a lockbox in your own home. Don’t, under any circumstances, carry these items with you.
2. Only carry items you’ll need on each trip.
If you’re going to the store, you’ll need either a check or a credit card, but not both. You only need your Medicaid card when you’re headed to the doctor. For each trip you take, consider what items you actually need on you, and leave the rest at home. The less personal information you have on you, the less power a potential thief will have.
3. Shred documents before trashing.
Any files or documents you have that include personal information should be shredded before you throw them away. You can invest in a shredder, or cut them up into small strips before tossing them. Either way, the goal is to ensure that someone digging through your trash won’t be able to read the account numbers or social security number on the page.
4. Don’t give any personal information to strangers.
As we discussed above, many scammers depend on the friendliness or gullibility of their victims. Rather than stealing from you, they just politely ask you to give up the information they can use against you and hope you’ll assume they’re trustworthy. Any email or phone call you receive from a stranger asking for personal information should be ignored. If you’re worried it might be important, ask someone close to you what they think before you respond.
5. Keep an eye on your bank and credit card accounts.
If identity theft does occur, the faster you can catch it the more protected you’ll be. Make a point to check your bank and credit card statements with regularity so you’ll notice if any charges show up you didn’t make. If you can step in and let your bank and credit card companies know right away that something’s up, the thief won’t be able to get very far with your information.
6. Check your credit score once a year.
You can check your credit report for free once a year. Making sure you give it a look gives you the opportunity to see if any new debts have been reported that you aren’t responsible for.
7. Don’t carry your Medicare card.
You don’t want to be carrying around anything that has your social security number on it. Unfortunately, many Medicare and Medicaid cards do. You can get around keeping the card on you by making a copy of it and blacking out everything but the last four digits of your social security number and carrying that instead.
Identity theft can make you feel powerless, but you can preemptively take some of the power back by being prepared. Be on your guard with strangers and careful with who you let access your personal information. You worked too hard to earn the money you have today, don’t let someone else take it from you.