Savvy Senior: How Seniors Can Guard Against Identity Theft
Dear Savvy Senior,
What tips and resources can you recommend to help seniors guard against identity theft? My next door neighbor, who’s 79, recently had her identity stolen and I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to me.
Identity theft continues to be a big problem in the U.S., affecting around nine million people every year – many of whom are seniors. Identity theft occurs when someone gets access to your Social Security number (SSN), bank or credit card account number, or other identifying information and uses it to steal from you. While there’s no ironclad protection against ID theft, here are some things you can do to minimize your risks.
Guard Your SSN
Treat your SSN like your most prized possession. Never carry your Social Security card around in your wallet or purse, don’t write your SSN on checks (except those you send to the IRS), and never give your SSN, credit card number, checking or savings account numbers to strangers who call, visit, text, or send e-mail messages to you even if they seem legitimate. And, don’t carry around your Medicare card either unless you’re going to the doctor. Your Medicare card contains your SSN.
Be wary of emails: If you use the Internet, don’t trust emails that claim to be from the Social Security Administration, the IRS or other government agencies. Also be leery of emails that look like they’re from your bank, telephone company or credit card company. Remember that only phony e-mails will ask for your credit card number or SSN. For more Internet fraud tips including a list of common online scams see www.onguardonline.gov.
Secure your mail: Empty your mailbox quickly, or consider getting a P.O. Box or buy a locked mailbox to deter thieves. Also, don’t leave outgoing mail in your mailbox. To put a stop to prescreened credit-card offers that thieves look to intercept, use the consumer credit reporting industry opt-out service at www.optoutprescreen.com or call 888-567-8688 – they will ask for your SSN and date of birth.
Destroy your trash: Buy a cross-cut paper shredder and shred all records, receipts, statements, preapproved credit offers, mail solicitations or other papers you throw out that have your financial or personal information.
Monitor your accounts: Review your monthly bank and credit card statements carefully, and see if your bank or credit-card issuer offers free alerts that will warn you of suspicious activity as soon as it’s detected. If they do, sign up for them.
Watch Your Credit
Check your credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228. You can receive one free report a year from each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion), so consider staggering your request so you can get one free copy every four months.
Set up security freezes: You can help protect yourself by setting up a security freeze on your credit reports at all three credit bureaus – Equifax (www.equifax.com, 800-685-1111), Experian (www.experian.com, 888-397-3742) and TransUnion (www.transunion.com, 877-322-8228). With a freeze in place, no one, including you, can open new lines of credit in your name. This typically costs $5 to $10 per person per credit bureau each time you freeze or thaw your credit report. Some states offer free freezes for ID-theft victims.
If you ever think your identity’s been stolen, immediately contact your creditors and financial institutions to report unauthorized charges or debts, and close any compromised accounts. Then place fraud alerts and security freezes with the three credit reporting agencies, and file a report with your local police and with the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov or 877-438-4338.
For more tips on preventing identity theft visit www.idtheftinfo.org and www.idtheftcenter.org. You can also hire an identity theft protection service like ProtectMyID, LifeLock or TrustedID to keep tabs on your identity for you. These companies typically charge around $10 to $20 per month, but the services they provide are typically no better than what you can do yourself by following the previously listed tips.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of The Savvy Senior book.
The Gazette does not endorse the contents of The Savvy Senior. Check with professionals about the contents of this column.