7 Identity Theft Prevention Tips for Seniors

Mature older couple using a laptop computer, worrying about their bills and debts
While identity theft is a large and growing problem for all demographics in society (even children), seniors tend to be victims of the types of identity theft that experts at the Experian credit bureau say are rising fastest: cases involving tax returns and medical care.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, in 2012 the highest percentage of consumer complaints (18 percent) were about identity theft. Consumers age 60 and older filed 52,610 complaints with the FTC about identity theft in 2012. That's 19 percent of all complaints the agency received on the subject. That number is up from 32,907 two years earlier, when this age group accounted for 13 percent of all ID theft complaints.

Why Are Seniors So Vulnerable?

There are several reasons seniors are at a higher risk of identity theft than their younger counterparts, says Ken Chaplin, Senior Vice President of Marketing for Experian's ProtectMyID.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%"Thieves realize seniors are more likely to have paid off loans and are probably carrying less credit card debt than other age groups, which makes them a low risk for creditors," Chaplin says. That means that a criminal applying for credit using an older victim's information is more likely to be approved.

Chaplin says that seniors also don't typically check their credit reports as often as younger age groups, who are more likely to be monitoring their credit in preparation for buying a home, car, or applying for a store or bank credit card. "That means they likely won't see when someone is using their identity to take out a loan or apply for other forms of credit, making seniors an easier target for identity thieves."

Chaplin offers the following tips for seniors to help them avoid becoming a victim of identity theft.

7 Identity Theft Prevention Tips for Seniors
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7 Identity Theft Prevention Tips for Seniors
Make a copy of your Medicare card and block out the last four digits of your Social Security number so if you lose it or your wallet is stolen, no one can get your full Social Security number.
Seniors are often the target of phone scams. Don't respond to incoming phone calls requesting personal information. If a creditor or organization calls with a seemingly legitimate need for your personal information (account numbers, Social Security number, or credit card information), hang up and verify the phone number and legitimacy of the caller before returning the call.
Don't carry more personal documents than necessary with you when you leave the house. Leave Social Security numbers, checks, extra credit cards, Medicare cards, and financial statements in a locked security box at home or another secure location. If you're ever admitted into the hospital or other care facility, credit cards and personal documents should be locked up or put in the hands of someone you trust. Adopt a need-to-know approach to your Social Security number and mother's maiden name. If a business asks for this information, ask what it will do with the information, why the company needs it, how the company will protect it, and what will happen if you refuse to provide this information.
The federal government offers a guide to help you decide how long you need to keep various types of paperwork. Shred anything you don't need to keep, such as documents that contain account information, Social Security numbers, PINs, or sensitive information -- including credit card statements, other bills, credit card receipts, unused checks, canceled checks, and credit reports. Also shred or otherwise destroy expired credit cards and driver's licenses. And never leave receipts at bank machines, bank counters, trash receptacles, or gas pumps.
As tech-savvy seniors know, you should protect your computer and your Internet activity. Consult with a network professional to make sure your computer system is secure. Install antivirus software, anti-spyware, and firewall software to prevent cyber-programs that steal personal information. Use unique passwords for your computer and any online accounts and change them on a regular basis. A strong password includes a mix of numbers, symbols, and both upper- and lowercase letters. Don't use your birthday or pet's name, your phone number, or anything that could be easy to guess. Never send personal information via email, and never respond to emails asking you to verify your password, account number, Social Security number, or credit card numbers.
When you're out of town or out of the country, consider purchasing a portable router to create your own Wi-Fi hotspot so you can safely use your laptop, tablet, or smartphone while on the road. You'll need a local SIM data card, which is available at most electronic stores and at airport kiosks for travelers. This will help you avoid using public Wi-Fi spots. Also, before going on vacation, ask the post office to place a vacation hold on all mail.
Many seniors don't think about checking their credit since they're often not in the market to borrow money for a house or car. You should, however, request a free credit report via annualcreditreport.com on a regular basis. You can request your credit report from one of the three credit reporting agencies at a time (and therefore check your credit three times each year for free) or sign up for a credit monitoring service to make sure no suspicious activity occurs.
Whether you're a senior yourself or are concerned about an elderly loved one, maintaining vigilance over personal information can prevent identity theft, and regularly checking for activity in your credit file will make it easier to stop the damage faster if you do fall victim to this crime.

Michele Lerner is a Motley Fool contributing writer.
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