If you still think your personal information is safe from identity thieves, you might want to think again. Reports of identity theft increased by 16 percent in 2016, affecting 15.4 million victims and costing them more than $16 billion in financial losses. And that didn’t count the 143 million hit by the Equifax data breach announced Sept. 7, 2017.
Anyone can fall prey, but seniors are increasingly becoming targets of financial fraud. According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of elderly identity theft victims rose from 2.1 million in 2012 to 2.6 million in 2014.
Not only can identity thieves drain your bank accounts and rack up purchases on your credit cards, they could also threaten your retirement security. If an identity thief has your personal information, he or she could use it to claim Social Security benefits in your name, hack into your retirement accounts or commit Medicare fraud.
Those are all headaches you can do without. If you’re concerned about leaving yourself open to identity theft, here’s what you need to know to protect yourself.
How Identity Thieves Target Seniors
Identity theft scams can take many different forms, To get the attention of seniors, scammers focus on particular tactics. Knowing the warning signs can go a long way towards stopping identity theft in its tracks. For example, scammers may:
- Make an emotional appeal. One technique identity thieves use with older victims involves emotional triggers. According to research from Stanford University, older adults are more likely to buy into fraudulent claims if they’re motivated by a strong positive or negative emotion.
- Create pressure to act. A common sales tactic involves creating a sense of urgency and this is a method identity thieves may also adopt. They may tell you, for example, that everyone else is doing XYZ so you don’t want to miss out or lose a limited time offer. They put pressure on you to make a decision without thinking it through and before you know it, you’ve handed over your financial information.
- Instill a false sense of trust. Some identity thieves are more subtle in their approach and go out of their way to lull seniors into their confidence before moving in for the kill. Scammers may pose as a financial advisors, for instance, and tell you that they can provide services that they don’t ordinarily offer to their other clients. They then use the trust they’ve created to steal your financial information.
- Use distraction to get what they want. If other tactics don’t work, identity thieves can always fall back on the old bait and switch. This usually involves fast talking, refusing to answer questions directly or attempting to steer the conversation without taking your input into account. By the end of the conversation, you may be so confused that you don’t realize you’ve agreed to something or given up any of your information.
Defending Against Identity Theft
Safeguarding your financial and personal information from identity thieves isn’t impossible; it just takes some planning. These tips can help you put up a stronger defense against financial fraud.
- Be cautious about sharing sensitive information. This seems like a no-brainer, but 25 percent of Americans have shared their credit card or PIN number with friends and family, and 20 percent say they’d allow someone they know to use their personal information to get a job or credit. While it might make sense to share these details with the person who’d be responsible for managing your finances if you become incapacitated or pass away, you don’t want to hand it out to just anyone.
- Keep an eye on your mail. If you still get paper statements from your bank, credit card companies or billers, make sure that those statements are arriving in your mailbox on time each month. Always go over your financial statements carefully to make sure no unauthorized charges are showing up on your accounts.
- Use secure passwords. If you’re doing anything online—whether it’s shopping, checking your email or logging into your investment accounts—you need to use secure and unique passwords. Using acronyms or blending special characters and numbers into your passwords can make them stronger. And don’t use the same password for everything. If you have trouble keeping up with multiple passwords, try using a password manager to keep them secure.
- Question unsolicited offers. If someone calls you up or emails you to tell you that you’ve won a free vacation or a large cash prize, don’t assume it’s legit. When something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Identity theft can cost you in more ways than one and having your retirement jeopardized is something you can’t afford. Knowing the signals that a scam is afoot and how to avoid it can help keep your nest egg intact.