The Internet is not always your friend.
Lurking in the dark corners of the Web are scammers and thieves trying to steal the bank account and credit card numbers and other personal information of baby boomers, whose lifetime of savings and established credit histories make them top targets.
Cases of identity fraud of adults 50 and older are rising sharply, according to the Federal Trade Commission, which reports that boomers accounted for 37 percent of such complaints to the agency in 2013. Identity theft is the most common type of fraud reported by all consumers, however, the number of complaints from younger generations has held steady or declined since 2011, according to the federal agency.
Recent large-scale data breaches have only served to highlight the risk consumers face when it comes to protecting personal information. In December, giant retailer Target acknowledged hackers had stolen credit and debit card information of 40 million of its customers and e-mail and mailing address of some 70 million people. Since then Neiman Marcus and crafts store Michaels and other retailers have also acknowledged data thefts.
“We’re certainly concerned about the vulnerability of older consumers to identity theft,” said John Breyault, vice president of public policy at the National Consumers League. “The Target breach has been a wake-up call for all this data we are sharing.”
Whether targeted online or with old-fashioned mail, by caregivers or strangers on another continent swiping caches of consumer data, baby boomers have what thieves want: a big nest egg and usually clean credit histories that can used to make fraudulent credit cards.
As adults age and succumb to memory lapses and more serious illnesses, such as dementia, they are less likely to aggressively check their bank accounts and credit reports for unauthorized charges, Breyault said.
“Older adults who spend a lifetime building good credit have a lot to lose,” he said.
Boomers themselves are bombarded by schemes to bilk them out of Medicare benefits, tax refunds, bank information, and savings. Thieves often pose as Medicare representatives and ask seniors to send them Social Security numbers and other personal information to verify that they are eligible for a benefits payment, said Barbara Anthony, the Massachusetts undersecretary of consumer affairs.
Fake correspondence designed to look like it is from banks and Internet providers, with a credible reproduction of the company’s logo, also is popping up more often in e-mail boxes, seeking passwords and other key information.
Never provide personal information, including Social Security numbers, over e-mail or on the phone, Anthony said.
Moreover, don’t assume these thieves have moved wholly over to the Internet; seniors are still vulnerable to old-fashioned scams using the phones and mail that take advantage of their loneliness and isolation.
For example, late-night phone calls from thieves pretending to be grandchildren in a jam and asking for a quick wire transfer are still popular. And sweepstakes schemes promising millions in winnings if the victims pay thousands in advance, still find marks.
Glen Mullen, a 58-year-old Quincy resident, saw his elderly aunt lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings through a mail scam. The 87-year-old woman wired money to Jamaica and other countries thinking she would win $1 million; she lived alone, handled her own finances, and always insisted that she knew what she was doing, Mullen said.
It wasn’t until it was too late that her family also realized she was lonely and in the early stages of dementia, Mullen said.
“These guys are always one step ahead,” he said. His aunt is now in a nursing facility and Mullen said he gets her mail, which still includes piles of sweepstakes letters.
Anthony said these types of scams are far too common. Several years ago, her own aunt sent out nearly $10,000 in checks thinking she could win a sweepstakes, Anthony said.
She warns consumers to beware of these mailings and suspicious of any offers that want money sent by wire transfers, pre-paid cards, and checks. Once checks are cashed, banks rarely reimburse consumers, she said.
Consumers have more opportunity to dispute a fraudulent credit or debit card purchase with a bank, Anthony said.
To protect against fraud, including identity theft, she recommends consumers buy a shredder and destroy any credit card and other offers. Also, consumers should check their credit history a few times a year, available free at www.annualcreditreport.com, to make sure no one has opened up a card in their name, Anthony said.
Keep computer security software updated and whenever making a purchases online or over the phone only give the vendors minimum information, Anthony said. Vendors may need a credit card number, but not your Social Security number, she said.
Still, even with all these measures, protecting your data is nearly impossible when so many transactions are done electronically.
Even the wary Anthony had her credit card information stolen last year after she shopped at Target, ate at a Boston restaurant that experienced a data breach, and stayed at a chain of hotels that was also hacked.
“We are not 100 percent safe,” Anthony said. “It’s the world we live in. It just has to be part of being careful about your financial business.”