Regulators and consumer advocates focus on senior identity theft
Older consumers are no more vulnerable to identity theft than others, but they do tend to be victims of the types of ID theft that are on the rise — cases involving tax returns and medical care.
For that reason, the Federal Trade Commission held a one-day workshop last month on senior identity theft. And Howard County on Thursday evening is holding an identity theft forum that will cover fraud directed at both seniors and children.
“Seniors are targeted because they have more disposable income,” said Rebecca Bowman, administrator of Howard County’s Office of Consumer Affairs, which is sponsoring the forum. “Many of them have very good credit histories and so the ID thieves will go after seniors because the benefits they reap can be substantial.”
Consumers 60 and older filed 52,610 complaints with the FTC about identity theft in 2012, or 19 percent of all complaints the agency received on the subject. That’s up from 32,907 two years earlier when this age group accounted for 13 percent of all ID theft complaints.
The FTC acknowledged it is collecting data from more sources, accounting for part of the increase. But, it added, fraud is on the rise and identity theft is one of the most frequent complaints of seniors.
The FTC’s workshop last month featured panels of regulators, consumer advocates and financial industry representatives discussing the kinds of identity theft most likely to hit older consumers.
One of them is tax return identity theft in which a thief uses someone else’s Social Security number to file a return and collect a refund. When the legitimate taxpayer files later, their return is rejected because a return already was filed under their Social Security number. Victims must verify their identity to the Internal Revenue Service before they can receive their refunds.
Older taxpayers tend to be victims of this crime because many of them live in Florida, “a hotbed for tax identity theft,” said Steven Toporoff, an FTC attorney.
“It’s such an issue there that all these criminals have stopped mugging people on the streets and are now switching their knives and guns for laptops and Wi-Fi connections,” said Neal Waters, a policy research analyst at AARP.
Older consumers are less likely to uncover the fraud because their income is often so low they don’t have to file a return, which means a theft can go undetected for years.
Taxpayers can protect themselves by filing returns as early as possible, beating a thief to act.
Christopher Lee, a senior attorney with the IRS’ Taxpayer Advocate Service, said consumers should order a free copy of their tax transcript. If someone doesn’t need to file but the transcript shows returns being submitted annually, they should contact the IRS, he said.
Taxpayers can order their transcript online at irs.gov.
Medical identity theft is another type of fraud particularly affecting seniors. For example, someone can use someone else’s identity to obtain health care services, said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum.
It can have dire consequences, if the victim’s medical history is combined with a thief’s, Dixon said. A victim could receive the wrong medication or diagnosis because of incorrect medical records.
Seniors tend to be vulnerable to this kind of fraud because they are bigger users of health care, which means their information is more likely to be in the health care system and exploited, experts said.
Some medical identity theft is perpetrated by organized crime hacking into health care systems, said Andy McKee, an inspector and supervisory special agent with Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, which investigates Medicare fraud.
“Health care systems are particularly vulnerable and particularly attractive to them because of how much money you can make,” he said.
Other times, thieves get their hands on consumers’ information through less sophisticated means.
For example, Medicare cards — which seniors are encouraged to carry with them — bear their Social Security numbers. A lost card can fall into the wrong hands. Or an unscrupulous clerk with a photocopier or cellphone camera can easily capture an image of patients’ Social Security numbers.
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