With an economy in recovery in an ever-quickening digital age, scammers
and identity thieves are trying more and more to exploit vulnerabilities to line
pockets with ill-gotten gains.
Although people age 65 and older constitute about 15 percent of the population nationally, they fall prey to identity thieves at a rate of 30 percent, according to Denise Owens, vice president of Comerica Bank's financial intelligence department.
Owens, who investigates fraud committed against the bank's customers, said scammers seek names, Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers and other information. She's seen this information used to fraudulently buy homes, vehicles, open bank and credit accounts and acquire other goods and services.
"An identify thief can do anything with your information that you can do with it," Owens said.
About 12 million people fell prey to identity theft in 2012, according to a recent report by Javelin Strategy & Research. Owens said seniors often are the targets of scams, because they control about 80 percent of the personal financial assets in the country and more than 50 percent of the discretionary spending power.
"Many seniors have their life savings from working hard all their lives, so they don't need credit, and seldom do they check with the credit bureaus," said Pam Hicks, Kerr County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman. "And they were raised to trust and take people at their word."
Owens is offering a free presentation on the topic of elder fraud on Thursday, at the Bank of the Hills, 1015 Sidney Baker St. The 3:30 p.m. event, in the bank's main lobby, is open to the public. Owens said she'll offer information about the most common fraud schemes, and she'll identify ways people can protect themselves against scammers and identity thieves. Owens said she'll be available to answer questions after the presentation.
According to Hicks, the best thing people can do is hang up on telemarketers who may actually be scammers. Hicks said scammers are trained to not take "no" for an answer, and as long as they can build trust with a potential victim, the better the odds are of a scammer getting personal information.
"The best advice is, never give information on the phone to anyone and never send money to anyone that requests it," said Kerr County Sheriff Rusty Hierholzer. "If it sounds too good to be true, then it is."
Owens said people should avoid sending personal information over the phone lines or Internet, especially if they don't really know the recipient. She said people should not keep their Social Security cards in their wallets, never print driver's license numbers or Social Security numbers on checks and always shred old bank statements, credit card applications -- especially those that are pre-approved -- and other documents with personal information. Papers listing only names and addresses are not as important to shred, Owens said.
According to the sheriff's office, the issue of scammers trying to acquire personal information -- including bank information -- is a problem all over the county, and there are new scams daily.
Recently-reported scams include the perennial grandparents scam, by which a telephone caller will pose as a grandchild or a friend of a grandchild. The caller claims the grandchild is in legal trouble or was involved in an accident and requests funds to assist. Another scam reported locally in recent months involved someone posing as a Publisher's Clearinghouse representative who asked residents to buy prepaid credit cards and requested the numbers for the payment of fees before a prize could be delivered. Other recent scams involved callers posing as IRS agents threatening legal action unless they receive prepaid credit card numbers.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, people 60 and older mostly filed complaints with the agency about telemarketing calls, government imposter scams, third-party debt collectors, shop-at-home sales and scams involving prizes, sweepstakes and gifts, according to recent testimony by the FTA before a U.S. House subcommittee on commerce manufacturing and trade.
According to an FBI fact sheet, seniors are less likely to report a fraud, because they may not know who to report it to, are too ashamed at having been scammed, or they don't know they have been scammed.
Instances of identity theft should be reported to the FTC and the three major credit bureaus, Owens said, and she advised people to check their credit reports at least annually. Owens said unless these steps are taken, it can take about 14 months for people to realize they are victims of identity theft.
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