When Peter’s father became too infirm to live independently, Peter took on the job of moving him into an assisted living facility. Using his power of attorney, Peter then began to dig into his father’s financial records. What he found shocked him. His father had become an unsuspecting victim of identity theft.
Peter’s father, who rarely left his house, was enrolled in several discount memberships for vacations, restaurants and other services. Each charged his dad’s credit card $40 to $90 per month. Even worse, Peter learned that more than $20,000 had been stolen from his father’s bank account through the bank’s online bill payment service. The checks went to an untraceable Post Office box, leaving little chance of recovery.
Unfortunately, this story is true and all too common.
Con artists and cyber criminals prey on older Americans, exploiting what is often their limited understanding of online risks. Here are nine steps you can take to protect your parents from becoming identity theft victims:
1. Check to see what your parent carries around. Many older people hold their lives in their pockets or purses for a quick trip to the store. But the theft of a wallet or pocketbook can drain hours of time contacting credit card companies, government agencies and banks.
Set up your mother or father with a small wallet or purse containing only what might be needed for brief outings: home and car keys; a driver’s license; one credit card, emergency contact information and maybe a health insurance card.
2. Guard your parent’s personal information. A thief who has someone’s name, address, phone number, Social Security number, date of birth, mother’s maiden name or personal information commonly used to answer security questions can run rampant with them. Under no circumstances should your mother or father give this information out to someone unknown.
Older people are especially vulnerable to phone scams, in which a caller masquerades as a fundraiser or bill collector and coaxes the victim into turning over credit card information. These con artists can be persuasive, so remind your parent never to give personal information to a caller he or she doesn’t know very well. And strongly explain to never give out credit card numbers over the phone unless your parent initiates the call.
If your mom or dad wants to donate to a charity, either they or you should look up the address on the organization’s website and your parent can send a check.
3. Monitor your parent’s bank and credit card statements. It’s a good idea to check account activity at least once a quarter. Look for charges from unfamiliar vendors and locations, and watch for recurring subscription fees, like the ones Peter found in his father’s records.
Your parent won’t be responsible for fraudulent charges, but the faster these problems are reported, the less damage the thief can do.
5. Explain the potential danger of the “remember my password” browser feature. Most browsers now have that feature, but it’s best not to use it on financial services sites and ones with health care records. A secure password manager with strong encryption is a better bet.
6. If your parent emails, explain how to practice “safe email.” Phishing attacks work by tricking recipients into believing that messages come from trusted sources when the actual intent is to capture personal information. Clicking on links from unknown senders is an invitation to malware and identity theft.
Show your mother or father how to determine the actual sender of a message by looking at the email address, rather than the name in the “from” field. For instance, a message from Google isn’t real unless the email address ends in “google.com” or "gmail.com." Instruct your parent never to send a password, credit card number or any other sensitive information via email. Instead, it’s best to type in the name of the trusted website and log in.
7. Explain the danger of “free” email offers. Those emails congratulating the recipient for winning a drawing or offering a free vacation? At best, these are bait-and-switch tactics. Most are just scams. Make sure your parent knows to never respond to them.
8. Tell your mother or father to be careful about sharing information on social networks. Advise your parent against sharing anything in a profile that could be used against them by a crook, including a telephone number, address and even an alma mater (a common basis for security challenge questions).
If your mom or dad is a frequent social network user, check his or her privacy settings. You’ll want to be sure no one outside of the immediate circle of friends or family can see any personal information.
9. Help your parent opt out of unnecessary stuff. Does anyone really like unsolicited offers of credit cards or insurance? Online services can expunge a person’s name from most of those lists in one fell swoop.