09/12/2013 11:41 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2013

And What's Your Mother's Maiden Name?

The average annual number of identity fraud victims is 11,571,900 in the U.S. - 7 percent of households reported some type of identity fraud. This translates to financial losses adding up to nearly $50 billion. Identity theft can be accomplished as simply as someone getting information from your charge receipt or stealing your credit card. But, as more safeguards have been implemented, thieves have become more sophisticated.

Who hasn't gotten one of those oddly-worded emails from someplace in Nigeria? You know the ones that address you as "Lovely Person," and go on to tell you how they have come into millions of dollars but need to deposit large sums into your bank account in exchange for cutting you in on the fortune? How about the dinnertime phone call congratulating you that you have won a free cruise, but you have to pay $200 to ship the tickets to you? I'm sure you quickly hit the "delete" button or slammed down the phone while saying to yourself, "What idiot would actually fall for this stuff?"

Not so fast -- that dupe could easily be you! An estimated 50 percent of phone scam victims are over the age of sixty-five.

I had recently been invited to a friend's home for a small dinner party. I was the first to arrive. After a short wait, my friend greeted me at the door. She welcomed me in, and apologized for the delay. She said that she was running late because she had been "dealing with the computer" for the past hour without success -- "The computer is only a year old, but after all that fuss, we couldn't really fix it. I guess I'm going to have to buy a new one."

"We?" I asked. "Who is your computer person?"

My friend explained that she was busily preparing dinner when she got a call from Microsoft. "Microsoft called you? How do you rate? I'm lucky if I can get the cable company to pick up the phone when I have a service problem!" She explained that she got this call telling her that they noticed a lot of error messages on her computer and if they didn't diagnose and fix the problem, she would lose all her files.

I'm not a computer geek, but I am a skeptic. The more I hear, the more I'm seeing red flags. "The guy said he could fix the problems if I gave him access to sign into my computer. I wouldn't have to take the computer anywhere - they could do it remotely." I jokingly asked if she gave him her mother's maiden name and her social security number while she was at it.

My friend is not a fool. She is a highly-educated, retired executive. I watched as all the color drained from her face as she realized what she'd done. "Yes, they said they needed the information in order to access my account. I watched them control my computer and put up different screens. It looked authentic. Oh no! What did I do?" She began to panic.

By now, the rest of the guests had arrived, two of whom happen to be I.T. experts. They rushed to her computer while I had her begin calling her credit card companies. In that short period of time, her accounts had been compromised, and charge cards run up, before the companies put holds on them. Passwords and PINs had been changed. None of this was going to be easy to repair.

We were both worried as to the extent of the ID theft. In addition to the inconvenience caused by the crime, my friend was mortified that she had been so distracted and careless that she had, so easily, given away the keys to the kingdom. I tried to make her feel a little better by explaining that these people are professionals - really skilled at catching people off guard.

Tips to Help Protect Your Identity

  • Use strong passwords and personal identification numbers - "Password" is not an acceptable password!
  • Keep your passwords and pins in a safe place. Do not carry them with you.
  • Subscribe to an identity protection service which will notify you if anyone attempts to open an account in your name, tries to change your address, or accesses your credit reports.
  • Never give personal information to anyone who calls you, no matter how convincing their story. Reputable agencies and authorities will never call you and ask for such information.
  • Do not follow a link in an email that takes you to a page that requires your password, no matter how official the page looks. If you get an email from your bank or other business, go to their site directly through your browser.
  • It's tried and true: If it sounds too good to be true, it is. If someone notifies you that you have won a substantial prize do not give them your personal information.

None of us is immune to falling victim to a scam or it wouldn't be such a widespread, lucrative business. It is easy to get caught off guard the way my friend was. There is a reason why these calls always seem to come around dinnertime. Don't give out any information, but if you do fall prey to a scam, don't be too ashamed to tell your family and notify the authorities. Crime must be reported.

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