Identity thieves are everywhere, and they’re on the prowl for your personal information. That might sound like an exaggeration, but it’s true.
More people filed reports about identity theft with the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network than any other type of complaint in 2020. And the number of identity theft reports filed—1.4 million—was more than double the reports filed in the previous year.
What’s even more shocking is the amount of money victims lost. Total identity fraud losses related to the unauthorized use of personal and account information reached $56 billion in 2020, according to Javelin Strategy & Research’s 2021 Identity Fraud Study.
What this means is that older adults or those caring for them need to be more diligent than ever about protecting personal information. Taking these steps can reduce the risk of becoming a victim.
What is identity theft?
Identity theft is the unauthorized use of someone’s personal information for financial gain. The types of information identity thieves want include names, addresses, birthdates, Social Security numbers, health insurance or Medicare numbers, and bank and credit card account numbers.
With that information, thieves can do the following:
- Make purchases with your credit card
- Drain your bank account
- Open new accounts in your name
- Steal your tax refunds or Social Security benefits
- Use your insurance to pay for medical care
- File for unemployment benefits in your name
There are a variety of ways thieves can get this information, from data breaches at large companies that have a repository of customers’ personal information to emails and texts that prompt recipients to share information to good old-fashioned scam calls.
How to protect your personal information
The best way to protect your personal information is to guard it closely and to be careful about with whom you share information. The Federal Trade Commission recommends taking the following steps.
Keep documents with personal information safe. Financial records and documents with your personal information should be stored in a safe place. Rather than toss these documents when you no longer need them, shred them so thieves can’t get access to your information while rifling through your trash.
Also, do not carry your Social Security card in your wallet. If your wallet is lost or stolen, thieves can do a lot of damage with that number and repairing that damage will be much more difficult than, say, simply canceling stolen credit cards. Instead, keep your Social Security card in a home safe.
Guard your personal information online. If you access your financial accounts online, make sure you’re using strong passwords with a mix of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols as well as different passwords for each account. You could use a free password manager system such as LastPass to create strong passwords for you and securely store them. You also should take advantage of your financial institutions’ two-factor authentication that will require you to enter a random code they send you each time you log in in addition to entering your password.
If you haven’t set up online access to your accounts out of security concerns, be aware that you might be putting yourself at more risk by not having online access because you can’t regularly log into your accounts to see what’s going on. Plus, if you haven’t set up online accounts, scammers can if they get ahold of your personal information. For example, AARP has received reports of scammers who used older adults’ personal information to create online Social Security accounts and steal their benefits by changing bank routing numbers for deposits.
Be careful about sharing your Social Security number. Some organizations, such as the IRS, your bank and your employer, require your Social Security number on documents you need to file with them. However, they won’t call out of the blue asking for this information. So don’t ever provide your Social Security number—or any personal or account information—if you get an unsolicited call, email or text message.
Also, there are situations where you might be asked—for example, by a medical provider—to provide your Social Security number on forms. But you might not necessarily need to provide it. Ask why it’s needed and whether another form of identification or just the last four digits of your Social Security number can be used.
[Find Out: How Can Older Adults Live Independently Longer?]
How to monitor your credit and personal information for fraud
In addition to taking steps to protect your personal information, you should be monitoring it for misuse so you can act quickly to limit any damage. There are a variety of ways to do this.
You can review your bank and credit card statements for transactions you don’t recognize. A better option, though, is to log onto your bank and credit card accounts to sign up for alerts and get notifications by email or text when there is activity on your accounts. This can help you quickly catch unauthorized transactions if you get notices for withdrawals, transfers or purchases you didn’t make.
You also should be checking your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. You can get free copies of your reports each week from Annualcreditreport.com and check for the following:
- Incorrect personal information, such as name and address: This could be a simple error that easily can be disputed. Or it could be a sign that some has stolen your personal information, and there are addresses that aren’t your own that are associated with accounts they’ve opened in your name.
- Inaccurate account information, such as credit card account balances that are higher than what you think they should be: This could be a sign that your credit card numbers have been stolen and used to make purchases.
- Accounts you don’t recognize: This could be a sign that your identity has been stolen and used to open accounts in your name.
- Hard inquiries from lenders: These inquiries only happen if you have submitted an application for a loan or credit. If you haven’t applied for credit lately but there are recent hard inquiries on your report, it could be a sign that someone is using your identity to try to apply for credit.
You can sign up for a credit monitoring service that will constantly monitor your credit reports and alert you to any new activity and changes to your reports. Identity theft monitoring services also are available to scour the web for threats to your personal information.
However, an easier way to monitor your accounts, credit and personal information is to use a service that will do all of it for you. The Carefull mobile app and desktop service monitors financial accounts 24/7 for unfamiliar transactions, unusual withdrawals, large transactions and other signs of fraud, as well as money mistakes such as late and missed payments. You’ll get email and text alerts whenever Carefull spots something suspicious and a weekly summary of activity in your accounts.
Carefull also provides credit and personal information monitoring—plus $1 million in insurance and restoration services for subscribers whose identity is stolen. You can get started with a 30-day trial for just $0.99 and get peace of mind that there’s a second set of eyes on your finances, credit and personal information.
What to do if your identity has been stolen?
If it's only your credit card information that has been stolen, contact your card issuer to alert it to any fraudulent charges, cancel the card and request a new one. You also should change your account username and password in case thieves got your card number by accessing your account.
However, if you believe your personal information has been stolen, you'll need to take more steps. If accounts were opened using your information, alert the fraud departments of the companies where the accounts were opened or charges were made to your accounts without your authorization. Reach out to all three of the credit bureaus to put a security freeze on your credit reports to prevent further lines of credit from being taken out in your name. You also should file a report with local law enforcement and visit IdentityTheft.gov to report the identity theft and get a recovery plan.
If you are a Carefull subscriber, you can get customer support in filing claims as part of the identity theft restoration service. You also get up to $1 million in identity theft insurance to cover losses if your identity is stolen.
The sooner you take action if your credit or identity has been stolen, the more likely you'll be able to limit the damage.
[Keep Reading: How to Guard Against Elder Fraud]