As the use of personal computers and cell phones has grown over the last two decades, identity theft has surged. One study found that over 14 million consumers were victims of identity fraud in 2018, and that their out-of-pocket costs totaled $1.7 billion.
Seniors have been particularly vulnerable in recent years to online scams and telemarketing tricks. Unfortunately, another negative effect of COVID-19 has been scammers targeting seniors and the elderly by developing coronavirus hoaxes that prey on fears of the virus.
The growing problem of identity theft for all age groups makes it vital for consumers to develop a strategy to protect their devices, and those of their loved ones, although no system is perfect, says Chris Orestis (www.retirementgenius.com), a senior care advocate known as the "Retirement Genius" and president of LifeCare Xchange.
At a minimum, no one should give out their Social Security number to a stranger and should never click a link in an email from an unknown source. But cyberthieves have many ways to steal your identity, invade your computer, or raid your bank account and credit cards.What should you do to protect yourself from these scam artists and criminals?
“First, it’s important to understand that identity-theft protection services don’t actually stop identity theft,” Orestis says. “There is no fool-proof way to stop identity theft from happening; there are just too many different types of valuable information and avenues for cyberthieves to hack them.
“The Federal Trade Commission actually prohibits identity-theft services from using the word ‘prevention,’ and if a company is promoting that as part of their service they should not be trusted. But regardless of any service you might use, no one can be disengaged from protecting their own identity. It’s important to take care of your identity and credit health with smart and regular maintenance, just like you do with your physical health.”
Orestis offers a five-step plan to help protect your identity:
• Register for fraud alerts. “You want these alerts on credit cards and bank accounts so you can be notified quickly of any suspicious activity on your accounts,” Orestis says. “With fraud alerts, data security companies and financial services will text, email or phone you if there is a suspected security breach, or if they detect spending on a card or account that doesn’t align with your spending habits or your location.”
• Review accounts regularly. Vigilance of your identity protection means you should go over your monthly bank and credit card statements and review online account activity weekly. “Immediately notify your bank or credit companies if you detect fraudulent activity,” Orestis says. “Either freeze your account or cancel your card. If you believe there could be a problem with your credit, you can place a credit freeze by phone with each credit agency’s customer service line.”
• Monitor your credit reports. Orestis says monitoring credit reports from Experian, Equifax and TransUnion is another way to find discrepancies that may indicate fraud.
• Don’t leave a paper trail. “It’s a good idea to get rid of physical private records and statements that include personal or financial data,” Orestis says. “Identity thieves get into mailboxes and trash. They can use receipts to piece together your personal data, so it’s smart to shred those and avoid any kind of paper trail.”
• Create strong passwords. Orestis suggests mixing upper and lower-case letters with numbers and symbols, and to avoid using the same password for every account. “Not having a strong password on your smartphone or computer is like leaving your house with the front door wide open,” Orestis says. “Identity thieves are counting on people to use the same or similar passwords for their electronic devices and financial accounts. Mix up your passwords, and change them whenever you suspect an account has been compromised.”
“Identity theft and cyber security are a very real threat in today’s internet-connected world,” Orestis says. “We all live online and are exposed to a lot of risk if we don’t do the right things to protect ourselves.”
[Chris Orestis, known as the “Retirement Genius,” is President of LifeCare Xchange and a nationally recognized healthcare expert and senior advocate. He has 25 years experience in the insurance and long-term care industries, and is credited with pioneering the Long-Term Care Life Settlement over a decade ago.]