Do you know what the fastest-growing crime in America is? Identity theft, according to TransUnion, a major national credit bureau. The company reports that about 19 people fall victim to identity theft every minute.
Identity theft occurs when someone acquires personal data and information by means of fraud or deception, usually for financial gain.
The economic impact of identity theft is staggering. Financial losses attributed to this crime totaled $24.7 billion in 2012, as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Seniors are often a prime target for identity thieves. In 2013, adults aged 60 and over accounted for roughly 27% of identity theft complaints, according to the Consumer Sentinel Network (CSN).
What can you do to guard yourself against scams like identity theft? Here are ten tips to follow.
1. Forewarned is forearmed.
Before doing any business with an unfamiliar organization, do your research. You can find out whether complaints have been lodged against a particular organization by visiting the Better Business Bureau.
Take the time to learn as much as you can about a particular issue or situation before making an important decision. Also, seek advice from people whom you trust, such as personal and professional sources.
2. Stay connected.
Living alone or being socially isolated can leave a person vulnerable to fraud. Social isolation is a known risk factor for elder fraud.
Stay in touch or stay involved with family members, friends or neighbors. Let them know about pesky calls, junk mail or spam that may make you feel uncomfortable.
3. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
If a telemarketer calls you with an offer and says, "You've won a free prize, but you must pay for postage and handling to receive it," or, "You can't afford to miss out on this high-profit, no-risk opportunity," think very carefully before reaching for your wallet or checkbook. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, telemarketers' scripts are often peppered with these trigger phrases.
If you're interested in a particular offering, do your legwork. Find out more about the company and the products and/or services it sells.
As a general rule of thumb, follow the caveat emptor principle: "Let the buyer beware."
4. Don't be intimidated by high-pressure sales tactics.
Scammers may manipulate your emotions by using different ruses, such as convincing you to look no further into the transaction. They may use hardball selling techniques to get you to comply, or won't take "no" for an answer.
According to the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office), these slam-dunk techniques are core components of fraud and are particularly effective in appealing to people's desire to be agreeable. So, don't fall for questionable sales pitches.
5. When asked, don't tell.
If an unknown caller requests personal information over the phone and the call wasn't initiated by you, don't be tempted to give out your information.
By volunteering sensitive information over the phone, you may unwittingly open the door to a scam artist who could misuse your personal information.
6. If you don't understand a document, don't sign it.
If you're presented with a document, such as a contract or an agreement, and you don't fully understand it, don't sign it.
Lawyers.com suggests that you do a word-for-word reading of any contract or agreement. If you're like most lay people (non-lawyers), you'll probably get stumped by a document using legalese. Ask your attorney, or a trusted advisor, to help you make sense of a confusing document.
7. Sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry.
Register your home or mobile number on the National Do Not Call Registry to prevent unwanted telemarketing calls. The registration process is free and easy. To sign up, go to https://www.donotcall.gov.
8. Use a shredder to dispose of sensitive documents.
Shred unwanted personal documents, such as credit card receipts, bank statements, bills, tax documents and so on.
If you don't want to handle the chore of document shredding, or it may take you hours to perform this all-important task, consider using a shredding service.
9. Learn about different scams and fraud.
In my previous blog post, "What You Need to Know About Scams and Why Scammers Have You on Their Radar," some common scams are described.
StopFraud.gov is an especially good source of information on financial fraud. This website also provides an online mechanism for reporting suspected fraud.
10. When in doubt, check it out.
If you suspect that you've been the victim of a scam, address the situation immediately, according to the National Council on Aging.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) encourages people to do a few things if they think they have been scammed.
*File a complaint with the FTC. For outside of the U.S., use econsumer.gov.
*Go to ftc.gov/idtheft to learn what you can do to guard yourself against scams.
*Report a suspected fraud to your state Attorney General's office.
*Ask one of the three credit bureaus--TransUnion, Experian, or Equifax--to place a fraud alert on your credit report.
If you've ever fallen prey to some sort of scam, you've experienced firsthand a possible threat to your financial well-being. Protecting yourself against scams starts with awareness and ends with prevention.