What retirees need to know about ID theft


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Be on the alert

For identity thieves, retirees are ideal targets.

Seniors often have a little money. Many have good credit. And they likely have some free time on their hands.

So it’s no big shock that almost 35 percent of those who file identity fraud complaints with the Internet Crime Complaint Center are 50 or older, says Charles Pavelites, FBI supervisory special agent with the center.

“These guys go where the money is,” says Pavelites.

But identity theft doesn’t only happen online. From fly-by-night “mortgage companies” targeting personal financial information to phone calls from faux relatives, a host of identity scams aim to separate retirees from their personal information and money.

Being aware of the following scams can help safeguard your money and identity.

A storefront may not convey legitimacy

Some fly-by-nighters will rent office or retail space to make their mortgage or loan operations look legitimate. They’re really after Social Security numbers and personal information on application forms and, in some cases, the deeds themselves, says Linda Foley, co-founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center.

To sidestep a thief: If you’re considering a lender that’s not familiar, run the name past the Better Business Bureau, the state department of consumer affairs and your state’s department of real estate, says Foley. Even better, shop “your own bank, credit union or company that you know has been around a while,” she says.

Streamline obituaries

When it comes to obits, less is more.

From birth dates and hometowns to relatives’ names, obituaries are an information bonanza for identity thieves.

For example, using the birth and death dates gleaned from the announcement, a con man can get copies of a death certificate, which often contains the deceased person’s Social Security number, says Foley. Then, for a short time, the thief can use the person’s identity to apply for new credit cards and loans, run up bills and walk away.

Thwart the thieves: Instead of listing the birth date or birth year, just include the age at death. That makes it harder for criminals, says Foley. And consider leaving out specific mentions of the hometown or state, she says.

Beware of ‘relatives’ who call for money

That friendly voice on the phone sounds vaguely familiar (or the connection is spotty, the volume low or the voice slightly garbled). It might not be anyone you even know, warns Foley. That’s because sometimes a con artist will assume someone else’s identity to pull a con.

How it works: You answer the phone to hear “Hi Grandma,” or “Hey, Aunt Phyllis.” Caught unaware and not entirely sure, you ask, “Is that you, Bobby?” And of course it is.

Bobby says he’s away from home and in a spot of trouble. You can’t tell anyone (his parents or siblings), because they’ll get mad-won’t understand-don’t know he’s traveling. But he trusts you, and needs you to send or wire some money, says Pavelites. He will, of course, repay you.

Upend the con: Make an incorrect reference to something Bobby would know, Pavelites says. Like, “How are things in Buffalo?” when he lives in California. If Bobby doesn’t correct you, hang up.

Even better, call someone who knows how you can reach Bobby directly. When you talk to the real Bobby, chances are you’ll discover he wasn’t your caller, says Foley.

Let urgency make you suspicious

Panic is an effective tool for identity thieves. If someone’s scaring you into acting immediately, chances are they’re using fear to overcome your natural intelligence.

One hot con: You get an e-mail from your bank or some branch of the U.S. government. Something’s wrong and something horrible (arrest, garnishment, legal action, empty or blocked accounts) is going to happen if you don’t do something right now.

The giveaway: “The FBI does not e-mail people,” says Jenny Shearer, spokeswoman for the FBI. And the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Homeland Security or any other branch of the federal government won’t either. (They also probably won’t phone you out of the blue.)

Be especially suspicious if the party requests your Social Security number, credit card number, bank account number or other personal financial information. The bank already has the data it needs, and isn’t going to contact you to ask you for it again, says Foley.

If you think that “emergency” e-mail is really from your bank, look up the phone number on your bank statement and call to verify, she says.

Be judicious with Internet information

From job sites to pen pal pages to Facebook, retirees are enjoying their time online.

It pays to be careful about what you share. Skip posting photos that show you in front of your home with the house number clearly visible. Don’t mention your upcoming vacation, says Shearer. In short, don’t do anything that would tell someone where you live, when you’re home (or not home), your living arrangements or where you’ll be at any given time, such as that Thursday night pottery class.

Ditto for job sites. Don’t post or share your Social Security number. For a home address, you can rent a post office box. And if you have any questions about the information requested in an online job application, call the company’s HR department and ask, says Pavelites.

The only time a company will “need” your Social Security number is after you’ve been hired or — in some cases — immediately before an offer if they run a background check. But you should not have to share it just to get your foot in the door.

Be careful with ’employers’

These days, many retirees are looking for part-time and work-at-home opportunities. While some are legit, others are not.

One identity con: You find the “perfect job” with an overseas company. But with no local bank yet, they need your help temporarily to transfer funds, says Pavelites. You receive checks, deposit them to your account and send or wire all or part of the money somewhere else.

Not surprisingly, the checks are bogus. When your bank puts cash in your account, the checks may not have actually “cleared” yet. When the bad paper is eventually discovered, your account will take the loss, says Pavelites.

Or else you collect and reroute wire transfers or deposit genuine checks. But the money has been scammed from others. So now you’re a “money mule,” says Pavelites.

How to upend the scam: Just say no to any requests to cash checks through your account or pleas to pick up or wire money. In the days of electronic banking, what company, no matter where they’re headquartered, can’t get a U.S. bank account almost instantly?

A ‘super-secret’ money-making opportunity equals a scam

Crooks are like roaches: They prefer the dark.

So turn on the lights. “You have a right to say ‘no,’ a right to ask questions and a right to ask them to send information so you can show it to anyone you want,” says Pavelites.

Sometimes the guy trying to get you to invest money is someone you met at church, a block party or your family reunion. Sometimes it’s just a voice on the phone. Or a letter in the mail. And the venture could be an investment, a business proposition, or even a contest or lottery. Doesn’t matter. Vet the person and the “opportunity” carefully.

Protect thyself: If they insist you have to keep it quiet and can’t talk to anyone? Just say “no thanks,” says Pavelites. Saying no will help you avoid getting duped by a financial predator.

Protect thyself

Arm yourself with knowledge to protect yourself from unscrupulous bandits. Read these stories for starters.