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Life stages of identity theft
It can happen to anyone at any stage of life, but the easiest targets are young adults who expose themselves to risks.
Protecting your identity

Risks of ID theft in a lifetime

Identity thieves discriminate to some degree. Anyone -- young or old, rich or poor -- can be a victim, but fraudsters generally prefer the easiest targets.

While most Americans are doing more to protect themselves from identity theft, others allow themselves to be more vulnerable. The greatest risk is to the 25- to 34-year-old age group. The good news is that as we get older, we're less likely to become a victim.

"What we're finding is that once somebody gets past the age of 44, the numbers start going down," says Keith Anderson, a spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission.

Still, 8.1 million adult Americans last year discovered that ID thieves had breached their personal data and committed one or more crimes against them, according to a February report by Pleasanton, Calif.-based Javelin Strategy & Research.

ID theft risks at various ages
As consumers age, they become more concerned about having their identities stolen. Bankrate's poll found that nearly 87 percent of Americans ages 50 to 64 reported they are very or somewhat concerned about having their identities stolen. And more than 81 percent of Americans age 65 and older are concerned.

Ironically, studies suggest seniors are the least likely demographic to become victims of identity fraud.

That's because seniors are increasingly becoming more vigilant about all types of fraud, from telephone solicitors to phishing scams.

"Seniors may be more cautious," suggests Sally Hurme, senior project manager at AARP. "It's a little hard to know exactly why the numbers are what they are, but we're glad to know that seniors don't appear to be as vulnerable or susceptible to ID theft," she says.

James Van Dyke, president of Javelin Strategy & Research, says federal agencies oftentimes portray seniors as sympathetic victims, thereby creating a false sense they are more likely to be preyed upon. But their actual risk of identity fraud is about half that of younger people.

The reasons: Seniors tend to be more conservative and conduct fewer overall financial transactions, he says.

Those who are online take advantage of newer security tools, such as antivirus software, and they are cutting down on the use of paper checks, Van Dyke says.

In Bankrate's poll, 89 percent of consumers age 50 to 64 said they regularly shred unnecessary documents containing sensitive information. Some 69 percent said they would consider initiating a credit freeze to protect their information. In the 65-plus age category, nearly 79 percent shred documents, and 53 percent would consider initiating a freeze.

AARP recommends credit freezes as a proactive measure so consumers don't have to wait until they "think they've been victimized by an imposter."

Hurme says that the AARP has been very active in advocating credit freezes to state legislatures.

If seniors are becoming savvier when it comes to sniffing out identity fraudsters, they still make attractive targets to phone scammers.

"People trying to earn their trust over the phone is on the increase," Van Dyke says. "But still they are preyed on less than the younger demographic of 25 to 35."

Most scams perpetrated against seniors are usually unsuccessful when the person is able to live independently and has no major health issues, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center's Jay Foley.

But that scenario can change dramatically when seniors enter assisted living facilities or are suffering some sort of dementia-based affliction. Foley says they are often targeted by either workers at the facility or their families, or a combination of both.

"There was a scam last year where a group of people working at a rehabilitation center filed income tax returns using patient identifications," he says. "They got a lot of money back from the government before somebody (from the IRS) found out that none of these patients worked the year before."

Identity thieves who find jobs using pilfered Social Security numbers of seniors inflict tremendous financial strain on their victims, particularly those seniors who are receiving disability benefits.

"If I take your Social Security number and start working, what happens? Well the Internal Revenue Service wants to talk to you, but more importantly, the Social Security Administration says: Wait a minute, you're working, you're not entitled to benefits, so they are going to shut them down," Foley says.

Meanwhile, says Foley, the review process for getting disability benefits turned back on can take anywhere from four to seven months -- an inordinate amount of time for seniors living on a shoestring budget.

-- Posted: May 27, 2008
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