By and large, seniors are not gullible. But they do tend to have assets or money. And living in a safe and peaceful place, such as Sun City Center, does instill a certain sense of well-being and trust. And as for trust, they grew up in a time when people tended to be more worthy of trust. There wasn’t an Internet, a tool that reaches into homes and bedrooms and is capable of being used equally for good or for ill.
Fifteen million Americans become victims of identity theft each year, and seniors are seen as prime targets for scammers. With the advent of the Internet, and even through the delivery of mail, there is simply no possible way to keep your identity completely safe. But there are steps you can take to protect yourself.
Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Sun City Center Community Resource Deputy Jeff Merry is on a mission to ensure none of the people he has sworn to protect and serve falls victim to scams and identity theft. He has been canvassing the community, giving presentations on what dangers lurk and how to avoid them and protect yourself.
His presentation is so good, so useful, that it deserves a much wider audience — but Sun City Center is his focus. It is his charge. Each month, he will travel to the various community rooms and auditoriums to cover a new topic, all designed to keep the residents of his community safe.
Merry’s seminars, which include a Powerpoint slideshow, is not the stuff of mere brochures with bureaucratic monotones. He has the credentials to back up not only his words but also his concerns.
Mixing actual law enforcement experience with occasional humor, he guided the audience through what constitutes identity theft, how it happens, the sheer nightmare and anguish of resolving the problems associated with it and, most importantly, how seniors can protect themselves from it in the first place.
How it happens can often be insidious, ranging from the high-tech hacking of email accounts and websites to tried-and-true low-tech dumpster and trash diving for paperwork; telephone and in-person solicitations carefully crafted to get people to reveal information; and fake credit card offers. People with exposed mailboxes are also at risk — not only for the theft of legitimate credit card offers that often arrive but also for the mail you send that could include checks and account numbers.
And there is the basic means of simply stealing a purse, wallet or laptop. When Merry asked how many of the seniors at Freedom Plaza did their banking online, a number of hands went up. A stolen laptop could provide a treasure-trove of information to an identity thief. As for a stolen purse or wallet, thieves are no longer interested in mere cash, they want the cards, and particularly so if a Social Security card is included.
Even the simple act of buying gas can result in becoming a victim of identity theft, with thieves using skimmers on the pump’s credit card slot.
Merry explained that the HCSO is working with gas stations to install stickers and anti-theft technology to assure the user that a credit card slot has not been tampered with. Some but not all stations in the county are currently using them.
For law enforcement, identity theft creates a significant problem. With the advent of the Internet, a thief no longer has to be physically present; they could well be in another country. That makes the issue of prosecution difficult, as one simple act of theft could cross local, state and federal jurisdictions.
Many banks and credit card companies have time limits on reporting false charges. Merry strongly urged keeping a sharp eye on credit card and bank statements and reporting fraudulent charges immediately.
The problems for the victims are manyfold, requiring that everything be documented. Victims will likely be looking at hours of work and telephone calls and possibly months of waiting before their names are cleared. It is also in a victim’s best interest to find out exactly how his/her information was compromised.
A growing problem, particularly in the Tampa Bay area, is the problem of government document fraud, including the filing of fraudulent tax returns, making up approximately 35 percent of all fraud.
Although prosecutions for such crimes are on the rise, it is difficult to protect yourself. Again, check your mail, your bank statements and, when possible, file early before someone else has the chance to do so in your name, with numbers made up to ensure a large, fraudulent refund that you will never see. And with that, the victim will find it difficult to legitimately file his taxes until the fraudulent return is investigated and cleared.
The deputy pointed out that the old days of a “bad guy” waiter copying credit card information are largely (but not entirely) gone in today’s electronic world. Collecting 10 or 15 credit cards on one shift is nothing compared with collecting millions of card numbers and other personal information through the hack of a major retailer.
Merry provided the information required to obtain a free annual credit report to keep track of your accounts, and to ensure no one else has a credit card in your name. The report is available at www.annualcreditreport.com or by calling 877-322-8228. He also suggested preemptively placing a “fraud alert” on your credit reports through the three major credit-reporting services.
And while it is clear who the main victim of identity theft is, with the seemingly endless cycle of headaches to follow in clearing one’s name, there is also an issue of responsibility. If you wait too long, in some cases as little as 60 days, to report fraudulent charges, you may be too late. But once an investigation begins, there also begins a cycle of the prime victim, the financial institution, the merchant and the perpetrator.
In the end, deciding who is truly responsible for the loss of very real money is not always clear-cut, assuming the perpetrator is not caught. And even if caught, it may be impossible for a financial institution or a merchant to collect on their losses.
Finally, perhaps most importantly, the deputy strongly encouraged everyone to safeguard all documents containing personal information. For those documents destined for the trash, he urged everyone to shred them rather than simply throw them away. A garbage can is no barrier to an identity thief. For those without a shredder, he pointed out an upcoming free “shredding day” on Saturday, Aug. 8, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Sun City Center Chamber of Commerce. Shredding unneeded documents will be done by the local company Legal Shred.
In July, Merry will conduct four seminars on check schemes and fraud at Kings Point, the SCC Atrium’s Sandpiper Room, American Momentum Bank and at the Freedom Plaza auditorium.
For victims, theft via mail, dumpster diving and electronic communication may seem to be a new world of worry, but for law enforcement officers, such as Deputy Merry, they have long since gained the experience to do what is possible to deter it.
Unfortunately, the potential headaches for the victim of identity theft remain. As the deputy’s seminar points out, the best way to avoid that is to avoid becoming a victim in the first place.
If you think you may be a victim of identity theft, call the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office at its non-emergency number: 813-247-8200. Deputy Jeffrey Merry’s office in Sun City Center may be reached by calling 813-672-7817.