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Thursday, 14 June 2012

Epidemic of Identity Theft

”J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, testified before Congress this month that the I.R.S. detected 940,000 fake returns for 2010 in which identity thieves would have received $6.5 billion in refunds.

“But Mr. George said the agency missed an additional 1.5 million returns with possibly fraudulent refunds worth more than $5.2 billion.”

That's from a New York Times story a couple of weeks ago about a fast-growing new form of identity theft – false tax returns. South Florida, where the problem has been labeled “epidemic” by officials, has the highest rate of identity-theft tax fraud in the U.S. with elders being easy targets:

”Most vulnerable are records from health care facilities, assisted-living centers, schools, insurance companies, pension funds and large stores that issue credit cards. The police say employees steal the information and sell it, an increasingly common practice here.”

It may be rampant in south Florida but don't feel complacent just because you don't live there. Here are a few figures on identity theft in general from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a part of the U.S. Department of Justice:

• In 2010, 7.0% of households in the United States, or about 8.6 million households, had at least one member age 12 or older who experienced one or more types of identity theft victimization.

• Among households in which at least one member experienced one or more types of identity theft, 64.1% experienced the misuse or attempted misuse of an existing credit card account in 2010.

In regard to identity-theft tax fraud, the Federal Trade Commission reports that “Government documents/benefits fraud” jumped from 10 percent of complaints received by the agency in 2005 to 19 percent in 2010.

My point is that identity theft can happen to anyone. According to the Times story, even a Tampa police officer whose job it is to investigate identity theft along with two dozen other officers “had their identities stolen and tax refunds diverted this year.”

”[T]he problem has gotten so bad that police officers conducting unrelated searches or simple traffic stops routinely stumble across ledgers with names and Social Security numbers, boxes of stolen medical records and envelopes with debit cards.”

Okay, okay. I'm pretty sure you've got the point. The remaining issue is what you can do about it. The simple answer is be alert but let's get more practical that that.

Never, ever give out your Social Security number to anyone who is not required to have it. There is a list here of organizations to whom you are required to provide your Social Security number. You can guess what they are – federal and state government agencies, employers, banks and others who are required to report monetary transactions.

But there is a gigantic catch-22: Your Medicare number is a dead giveaway: it is your Social Security number with a letter attached at the end. The crooks know that too, so while it's common to warn against carrying our Social Security cards in our wallets, few mention Medicare cards.

The non-profit Identity Theft Resource Center is a trustworthy source of good, wide-ranging information and this is their suggestion for the Medicare card dilemma.

Other good sources of prevention and other information include:
Social Security Administration
The Federal Trade Commission
The Privacy Rights Clearing House

Although it is becoming less common, many retailers ask for Social Security numbers – they use them, they say, as account or tracking numbers. Wrong! And you should never give out your Social Security number for a purchase. Do keep in mind, however, that if they insist, you may have to give up doing business with that company.

Sometimes it can take months before a victim becomes aware that his or her identity has been stolen, credit cards or loans have been made in the victim's name or a tax refund has been sent to the crook, etc.

The longer it goes on, the harder it is to untangle the mess. One way to track potential ID theft is through the three credit reporting agencies.

Everyone is entitled to one free credit report per year from each of the agencies. So here is a routine that will help keep you up to date on your credit activity:

  1. Request your free report from Experian.
  2. Wait four months.
  3. Request your free report from Equifax.
  4. Wait four months.
  5. Request your free report from TransUnion.
  6. Wait four months and then request your annual report from Experian again, and so on.

That way, you have a continuing, rolling report of credit activity throughout the year at no cost.

None of the prevention measures are perfect but these and other suggestions from the linked websites above will help keep you safer if not completely safe.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jackie Harrison: The Canyon


Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

I had my identity stolen and the woman who stole it used my number to get Dish Cable. When she didn't pay the nearly $500 bill they charged the amount to my credit card. It took me several months a a lot of stress to untangle the mess. My credit card company did a sloppy job of investigating and I finally had to go up the ladder to the highest general manager to convince them that the charge was not mine.

The Dish satellite company then tried again to charge me. I threatened them with the Attorney General. They backed off, but all of this caused me sleepless nights and a lot of stress.

The only way the woman could have gotten my credit card number was at a restaurant where you give the card to the server at a table and they take it to the cashier.

Unfortunately, if you eat out often you will never know where the theft occurred.

Useful information, Ronni. I'm doing all these things to protect myself, but it hadn't occurred to me to get the free annual credit reports at four-month intervals. That's an excellent suggestion.

I do carry a card with contact information and "pertinent medical information" as the ITRC link recommends. I have type 2 diabetes and am prone to hypoglycemia and include that info., so emergency responders know that I may need sugar ASAP. I also note that I'm allergic to penicillin.

I, too, carry an emergency contact card with my PCP, allergies, and medications listed. I've never carried my Medicare card, knowing my SS was on it. Simply knowing my number has been sufficient in all but one situation, but I intend to get and carry a photocopy with the last 4 digits cut out.

Would you believe many years ago in Oklahoma they actually used your SS number as your driver's license number!?

It is fairly simple to "lock" your credit reports. This means that nobody (including you) can open a new credit card or up the limit on an existing one without unlocking. When you are establishing new credit (like with Dish), you unlock which ever bureau they use for them and only for them. I've done this for years and found it is only a minor nuisance.

Good practical advice.
We had to deal with credit card fraud a while ago. Quite a nuisance.
I have been carrying around my Medicare card but will stop doing so.

I stopped carrying anything with my SSN on it years ago and rarely use a card of any kind if it has to be taken out of my sight. Although it may be somewhat risky to carry cash, that's pretty much what my husband and I do on the occasional times when we eat out. Since we rarely eat at high-end restaurants (who can afford those prices?!), we generally know about how much the bill will be and plan accordingly.

I fondly remember the days when people didn't live in constant fear of being financially victimized one way or another. Finding ever more creative ways to steal seems to be a sign of the times.

Hmm, well, I have NO credit record. Haven't had any since I & late husband were in our mid-30s (60 now). No credit cards, period. It's sometimes a disadvantage, but on the other hand, I pity the poor thief who tries to steal my identity for a credit card. I've actually sent off for those credit card offers that come in the mail, all DENIED.

At this moment a brand new credit card is on its way to me via overnight post. My very alert cc company noted two strange overseas charges and put a hold on our card, then called us to verify. I don't know for sure how the thieves got the number, but it followed close behind an online lapse in smarts on my part. The only info I gave was my name and my cell phone number, but they must have sophisticated software that connects the dots somehow. What a pain to have to redo all my online autopay and purchase sites. Hard lesson learned.

The suggestion for dealing with Medicare card is a good one. I always have it in my wallet, but only need it for a new doctor or such. My prescription drug card has my husband's SSN as well. One more potential problem there.

PiedType mentioned that OK used SSNs on DLs. Many states did that. In addition, back in the 1950s-1970s, schools (post high-school) used one's SSN as their student number.

Dear Ronni,

I am a filmmaker. I am also the daughter of two elderly people who were the victims of such exploitation, and I was referred to you by a journalist who interviewed me yesterday.

My parents’ life savings were embezzled by a man who insinuated himself into their lives. In my frustrating and ultimately futile struggle to find justice for my parents, I learned just how prevalent these crimes are — and how safe from prosecution and conviction the perpetrators are. I had to do something, and so my documentary "Last Will and Embezzlement" was born. It stars Mickey Rooney, it premièred in NYC in April and it’s being distributed by Terra Nova Films Inc (http://terranova.org/Home.asp) in Chicago.

The film examines the financial exploitation of the elderly, featuring disturbing first-hand accounts from real-life victims, including Hollywood icon Mr. Mickey Rooney, as well as in-depth interviews with experts who discuss such key issues as victim profiles, the perpetrators’ modus operandi, the symptoms and effects of these crimes, as well as potential solutions to this ever-increasing worldwide problem.

I just want to say ‘Bravo!’ to you for the work you do. Any and all blogs and well-written articles which draw attention to the issue are a boon not only to the elderly, but to baby boomers, who are on their way to being seniors, and to all those who love them.

FWIW the Terra Nova film link did not connect for me.

Good suggestions. Seems not much is secure any more.

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