7 Easy Ways to Avoid Identity Theft and Senior Scams
I remember the moment of panic when, 5 years ago, I realized that I had just had my wallet stolen. I was standing outside a store in Milan, admiring a particularly nice pair of shoes in the window, when a young man bumped into me. He held up his hands apologetically and smiled. As he disappeared into the crowd, realization dawned on me and I started to panic.
I swung my backpack off of my shoulders and cursed as I realized that the top zipper was completely open. My wallet was gone. It took me ages to sort everything out, but, at the end of the day, I was lucky. I lost the money in my wallet and nothing else.
Of course, not all thefts are as overt as this one. From the friendly “Microsoft engineer” calling to help you to update your computer to the door-to-door salesman with a product that they promise will be paid for by Medicare, senior scams are everywhere.
Even worse is identify theft, which, once it occurs, can haunt us for years.
Since this is such an important issue to the women in our community, I wanted to take a few minutes to share some of the tips that I have learned about avoiding identity theft and senior scams.
Do you have any other tips? Please add them in the comments section at the end of this article.
Stop Being So Darn Nice on the Phone
One of the reasons that scammers like to target seniors on the phone is that they know we are, in general, nice, helpful people. This is especially true of baby boomer women, who were taught from a young age to be “good girls.”
Unfortunately, scammers are masters of manipulation. They know exactly what emotional buttons to push – from fear to guilt – to get us to give them the information they want.
Two of the most common phone scams involve people pretending to be from the IRS or Microsoft. In the former case, it is our fear of getting in trouble that prevents us from hanging up. In the latter case, they use our perceived lack of technical skills against us.
In both cases, our good manners make the situation worse. Even if something doesn’t feel right, many of us are too nice to hang up the phone when someone is talking. If this sounds like you, find a way to get over it. This is one time when being nice is not a virtue!
Get Smart with Your Passwords
I’ll be the first to admit that this is one area that I have really had to work on. For years, I used the same simple password for all of the websites that I visited. It makes me shiver to think that, not so long ago, I had the same basic password for my online banking account and a popular forum on gardening that I often visited.
The first step is to choose passwords that are secure. This means selecting passwords that are at least 9-10 characters long. Your passwords should include a combination of letters, numbers and special characters. If possible, you should also avoid using words that can be found in the dictionary.
“But how am I going to remember them?” I hear you ask. The simple answer is that, with the exception of the passwords that you use every day, you don’t need to remember all of your login credentials.
I use a password protected Excel file to store all of my passwords. For an added layer of security, I have a pin number, which only I know, that I use after each of my passwords. So, in my Excel file, I would have YFhhd8-jsy11!F+pin. When I actually use this password, it would be YFhhd8-jsy11!F0098. And, no, these are not real passwords! LOL!
If you don’t have Excel, that’s ok. Just write them on a piece of paper. In the unlikely case that someone broke into your house, they wouldn’t know the pin that you add to the end of each of your passwords anyway! Or, you can use a service like Lastpass.
Even if you use the same password on multiple sites – which is not advised – make sure that your passwords for your bank and other important services are unique.
Avoid Giving TMI (Too Much Information)
I’m always amazed by how nosy business and organizations can be. Does your hotel really need your phone number and email address? Does your hospital or doctor really need your Social Security number?
As USA.gov points out, seniors are particularly susceptible to medical theft because, statistically, they go to the doctor more often. So, this is an area that we should be extra careful.
A good general rule of thumb is to provide as little information as possible on the forms that you are asked to fill out. If you miss something that is genuinely important, the person that is asking for the information will tell you. Most of the time, if you ask them what they need the information for, they will simply let you leave it blank.
Once again, this is a case of people of our generation being too nice. We don’t want to push back and be perceived as being uncooperative. But, when it comes to our personal information, we have a right to be cautious.
Protect Your Home Computer
There are so many different ways that you can make your home computer more secure and I won’t be able to go through them all here. But, let me cover some of the basics.
First and foremost, make sure that you have automatic updates turned on in Windows so that you have the latest security patches from Microsoft.
At a minimum, make sure that you have Windows Defender, Microsoft’s free antivirus program, running. You may also want to consider upgrading to a paid antivirus program like Norton Antivirus or Kaspersky.
In order to make sure that you are as safe as possible online, I would recommend downloading Google’s Chrome browser. It’s free and, in my opinion, it is the best browser out there.
If you are interested in finding out more about how to secure your PC, this article from Wikihow should help.
Lock Down Your Credit Report
I don’t know about you but I haven’t applied for a new credit card in years. I suspect that many people my age are the same. We have a few credit cards that we have used for years, but, we really aren’t in the market for new financing options.
If this sounds like you, consider freezing your credit reports with Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. This one step may make it much harder for the bad guys to open up accounts in your name. If you ever need to make a big purchase, you can always unfreeze it in the future.
Be Careful What You Carry
If your purse was stolen this evening, what kind of a treasure trove would the thief find? Would they come across your Social Security card? Would they find all of your credit cards? Do you have your mobile phone password, credit card pin or other passwords written down on a little piece of paper? If you answered yes to any of these questions, it may be time to clean out your purse!
Most of these items can be left safe and sound at home. Personally, I only take two credit cards with me when I leave the house. And, unless I am going to make a cash withdrawal, I only take credit cards, not debit cards. Credit cards are much easier to deal with if you ever have your purse stolen. Trust me – I found this out the hard way on a trip to Italy!
When in Doubt, Get a Second Opinion
Ok, I want to be a bit careful here. There are a lot of stereotypes about older people and I am in no way implying that we can’t make our own decisions. Far from it!
That said, with so many scams specifically targeting seniors, it often makes sense to get a second opinion from someone you trust. This is especially true if you have received an offer from a door-to-door sales person, in an email or over the phone.
For consumer purchases that fall into one of the above categories, I recommend having someone else in your family give you a second opinion.
For more significant purchases, especially ones that involve signing a contract, I would highly recommend asking a lawyer to take a look. Yes, paying for 30 minutes of a lawyer’s time is expensive. But, having someone empty out your bank account is much worse!
These are just a few of the tips that I have learned for avoiding identity theft and senior scams. I hope that you find them useful!
What advice do you have for the other women in our community with regards to identity theft and scams? Have you ever been a victim of theft, identity theft or a scam? Please join the conversation.