Protecting Your Identity
Following a few precautions can keep your identity safe
Illustration by Stephen Sauer
It was around 8 p.m. when the phone call came in to Forest and Joan Angwin's home in Pittsburgh, NH. Not late to most, but to the couple in their early 80s, it was later than they were used to getting phone calls. A man sounding official - like a police officer - said that their granddaughter had been arrested in New York. "Is it Nicole?" they asked. The other person said that it was.
"We have cousins in upstate New York that my sister, Nicole, is still close with, so it wasn't too far off for them to believe," says Michelle Carignan, Nicole's sister. "My grandparents threw a name out and they say 'yes, it's her and she needs $3,000 bail.' She asked that we call only you because she doesn't want to upset her parents. 'All we need is your checking account number,' they said."
Because he couldn't remember the checking account number Carignan's grandfather told the stranger to hold on while he looked for it. "My grandfather told him 'I'll call you back,' but the guy was adamant that they had to do it right then. Her grandfather finally got a number and hung up," she says. It took him an hour to find the checkbook. When they tried to call back and nobody answered, they called Carignan in a panic. After a few hours and several phone calls from Nicole and other family members, they were able to convince her grandparents that it was just a false alarm and luckily the would-be thief was unsuccessful.
Among the many cons out there targeting seniors, the "grandchild" scam is one of the most malicious. And even though this scam has gotten publicity, says Harold Moldoff, a volunteer with New Hampshire AARP's Consumer Protection Speakers Bureau, people are still falling victim to it. The premise is the same: seniors get a call from a purported police office or bail bondsman saying that their grandchild is in jail and asking for money to bail him or her out. They ask the seniors for their checking account information or to wire them whatever amount of money they think they can get, telling the senior that their grandchild will pay them back when they get home. And thieves will go to great lengths to convince seniors of their hoax. "Criminals are getting access to the grandchildren's Facebook pages or even calling cold from different countries," he says. And once the senior gives their information to the wrong person or sends money it's difficult - if not impossible - to get it back.
Identity theft is the number one crime in the country, says Officer Jane Constant, the senior relations officer with the Nashua Police Department. "Over 10 million people in this country are affected and that number is still growing because identity thieves are always finding new ways to part people from their money," she says. And seniors are prime targets. Why?
"Like Willie Sutton, the famous bank robber was asked, 'Why do you rob banks?'" says Moldoff. "And he replied, 'Because that's where the money is.'" Not only have seniors spent a lifetime building up their savings, but, adds Moldoff, "seniors are generally more trusting, they believe people are going to do what they say, and unfortunately in many instances that trust often costs them money."
And once somebody has figured out that this person is a good target, someone who has shared their information, word goes out and you start getting more calls, says James Boffetti, Senior Assistant Attorney General and chief of the Consumer Protection Bureau in New Hampshire. "If you are giving out personal information, know who it is you are giving it to and ask yourself why can you trust this person," he adds. "An unsolicited call usually means trouble."
Boffetti says that when he receives a call for any kind of charity, he simply says "Sorry, I don't do phone solicitations, but feel free to mail me something to look at."
Along with phone calls trying to scam you out of money, one of the biggest things that identity thieves are stealing is mail. "A lot of seniors are still putting bills in the mailbox and lifting up that little red flag," says Constant. "Identity thieves love to look for mail, and once they have that name, address, account number or credit card information, they have everything they need." Officer Constant says the only way to prevent that is to take mail to a post office or put it in the blue secure mailbox. Of course, people should also monitor the bills that they are supposed to be getting in and when they come.
"If you are supposed to get a bank statement by the tenth of each month but are getting it a week late, there could be a problem," she says.
"Dumpster diving" is another way that thieves are gaining access to personal information. "Thieves will search in trash barrels or recycling bins while everyone is sleeping, and a lot of times there are pieces of mail with important information on it. Some people will even throw out whole bank statements in the trash. Thieves don't care - they'll get dirty to steal that information," says Constant.
A simple yet important tool to combat this is a shredder. "Everybody should own a shredder," says Boffetti. "Any time you get any kind of checks in the mail where you can transfer balances or credit card applications, banking statements - those should all be shredded."
While out and about, Constant says seniors should leave the Medicare card at home. "You don't need to carry it with you every day, just if you are going to the doctor, and if it's an emergency and you don't have your card the doctor's office already has your information," says Constant. "Also, don't carry more than one credit card." Thieves will snatch purses or wallets - even from churches while people are going to communion or from the front seats of cars at the gas station - to get those items.
Identity thieves can also get your personal information by using "phishing schemes" via e-mail: What is made to look exactly like an ordinary site, such as Bank of NH or Bank of America, comes in your inbox, and will say something generic such as "Dear Valued Customer, there has been a problem with your account, please verify otherwise we'll have to close your account," says Constant. Usually it will be worded to sound urgent. Included in the e-mail is a link to click that brings you to the supposed bank's website, asking for your personal information and account number. However, it's a realistic-looking fake.
"Whenever you get a request for information, be careful about what that is. There's a lot of sophisticated e-mail schemes out there asking for personal information. Banks don't do that. The warning signals should be going off," says Boffetti.
Moldoff says recently he received a request in his e-mail inbox from what looked like Comcast to update their records. "The message came through on a Comcast sheet with a form indicating contact info, husband's Social Security number, wife's Social Security number, dates of birth, mother's maiden name, password, etc.," he says. "That information goes out of the country and it's easy for them to utilize that information until you are receiving bills from places you've never heard of."
Constant says to avoid phishing scams, consumers can download "Spoofstick" at doj.nh.gov/consumer. "Anytime there is a link within your e-mail that should be a red flag," says Officer Constant. "If you have Internet Explorer, you can download Spoofstick - it will distinguish between what is a real site and what is a fake."
Seniors should also take advantage of free annual credit reports, says Boffetti, to make sure they're accurate and that there aren't any problems. Consumers are entitled to three free copies of their report a year, which one can stagger every four months from each of the three credit reporting agencies at annualcreditreport.com. "Also know that there is a difference between the three credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experien and Trans Union) and free credit report commercial subscription-based services," says Boffetti.
The New Hampshire Attorney General's Office mans a toll-free hotline (8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday) so people can call and ask questions or get advice, at (888) 468-4454. "We usually get a couple hundred calls a week here on the consumer hotline, and we try to alert people," says Boffetti. "We've been able to stop some people from making big mistakes."
Once the senior gives away their life savings, it's gone in the blink of an eye. Says Harold Moldoff: "We know that we are not going to stop these crimes. The only thing we can do is tell them 'Here is what to watch out for, be aware. If it sounds too good to be true it generally is.'" NH
Share the Knowledge
AARP of New Hampshire offers a free PowerPoint presentation to civic and senior groups at no cost to them to get the word out about identity theft and senior fraud. To request a top frauds and scams presentation in your community, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to download a pdf version of this presentation.
The Attorney General's office also maintains a toll-free hotline (888-468-4454) five days a week that people can call and ask questions or get advice. You can also check out their website under consumer protection for reported security and data breaches so you can be aware if your credit or personal information may have been compromised. "There is a statute that requires notification of security data breaches," says Boffetti, "so you can go through the list just to scan. We probably get a couple of them a week."
What to do if your identity is stolen
“It takes a lot of time and it’s very tedious work to clear your name once someone steals it,” says Officer Jane Constant. Here are some steps to stem the damage.
1. File a report with your local police or the police department where the theft took place. Keep a copy of the report for your files because all of the stores, companies, bureaus, and credit bureaus are going to need to know police report on file.
2. Close any accounts that you know or suspect to have been tampered with or opened up illegally.
3. If you find anything amiss with your credit report, dispute it immediately and contact the fraud departments of any of the three consumer credit reporting companies (Equifax 1-800-525-6285, Experien 1 888 397 3742, or TransUnion 1 800 680 7289) to place a fraud alert on your credit report. You only have to report it to one; all of the others will be notified automatically.
4. Document through an ID affidavit. “Say it was Sears credit card opened up fraudulently,” says Constant, “you need written documentation between you and Sears, the date, the time, and who you talked to.”
5. Notify the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The national consumer protection bureau needs to be aware of the problem because they work with various law enforcement agencies to keep on top of the latest scams and fraud. They also maintain a database of identity theft cases. “A lot of time boiler room operations in another country Nigeria, Australia,” says Officer Constant. “The internet knows no country boundaries.” To learn more, visit ftc.gov/idtheft.