When ordinary people become victims of identity theft, the legal repercussions can be enormous. To make matters worse, some victims not only have to deal with financial fraud but also face the risk of being jailed for crimes they didn't commit.
Identity thieves may perpetrate crimes while masking their true identities with the names of their victims, which may result in the wrong person becoming imprisoned. Kissimmee, Fla., resident Erie Salgado has been worried about being arrested ever since his identity was taken a decade ago in Puerto Rico, ABC affiliate WFTV in Orlando reported.
Since then, Salgado has been suspected of being a Massachusetts-based cocaine dealer and also went to jail for the identity mix-up last fall. After Salgado spent days trying to convince law enforce authorities they had the wrong guy before he was released from jail, Sheriff Wayne Ivey gave Salgado an apology. Ivey said that the phenomenon of identity theft victims spending time in jail for crimes caused by someone else is occurring more frequently.
After Salgado's identity theft incident, his wife, Betsy, said the criminal actions of the identity thief has resulted in her husband's credit being damaged, which is a common effect of having unauthorized persons open new lines of credit without victims' permission.
"Victims who had personal information used to open a new account or for other fraudulent purposes were more likely than victims of existing account fraud to experience financial, credit and relationship problems and severe emotional distress," the Bureau of Justice Statistics said in a recent report.
%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%When victims try to clear their names, they can also run into obstacles, which can result in financial costs to the victims that may take time to resolve. The bureau said more than half of identity theft victims were able to prevent problems from escalating in a day or less. But some victims who had their personal information stolen wait much longer than that. The bureau survey showed 29 percent of victims waited a month or more before they were able to resolve issues concerning their identity. For Salgado, his problem has continued for almost a decade -- and counting.
If you're worried about becoming a victim of identity theft, you should monitor your bank and credit card accounts for any suspicious charges. Also, you can use a free tool like the Credit Report Card to monitor your credit scores every month. Any unexpected change in your credit score could signal identity theft and you should pull your credit reports to make sure you haven't become a victim.
Double Trouble: Being an Identity Theft Victim Can Land You in Jail
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.