Aging is a natural part of life, but in the ever-connected world we live in, new challenges have crept into the landscape of senior living. Older individuals in the United States now have to be concerned with protecting themselves from identity theft. They should be taking specific steps to safeguard their credit report and score from bad actors lurking behind the scenes.
According to a recent report published by the Identity Theft Resource Center, there were more than 1,500 data breaches impacting more than 179 million individuals.
Older Americans have higher instances of fraudulent financial activity, making up 35 percent of fraud complaints and just under 19 percent of identity theft complaints in the same year. These numbers are higher than other consumer demographic groups because of the higher level of vulnerability seniors have when it comes to their financial picture.
Because older Americans experience financial woes due to identity theft, fraud, and other credit report issues more often than others, it is crucial to know what can be done to help thwart these concerns as a senior. Fraudulent activity can be devastating for seniors, as criminals use this information to establish new accounts, rack up new debt, and gain access to bank accounts where money can be withdrawn.
Older adults are often on a fixed income which makes these actions even more costly in the long run. Fortunately, there are several steps older adults can take to protect their sensitive financial information from criminals to maintain a healthy credit score and clean report throughout their lifetime. Here are the most effective strategies for safeguarding financial details as you age.
Checking Credit Reports and Credit Scores
Older adults can take the first step in protecting themselves from fraud and identity theft by paying close attention to their credit reports and scores. Your credit report houses all the information about your financial life over the past several years, including credit card accounts, mortgage accounts, other loans, and address history. Your credit score is simply a numerical depiction of these components, with higher scores relating to a strong credit report and financial history. When your credit score drops unexpectedly, it could mean there are problems with your credit report.
The good news is there are several avenues for maintaining a watchful eye on credit scores and reports. All Americans have the ability to pull their credit reports from the three major credit reporting agencies once per year for free, either online through this platform or by requesting the information in writing. Seniors can also access their credit scores through several channels for no cost. Most banks, credit unions, and credit card issuers offer access to free credit scores through their online or mobile banking applications. Changes to a credit score are often an indication of fraud when there is no clear answer as to why it dropped.
Reviewing Credit Reports for Errors
While it is helpful to pull credit reports and scores periodically, older adults also need to take the time to review their credit reports once they are retrieved. Many times, bad actors can use compromised personal information to establish new accounts or move money out of accounts without the true account owner realizing there is an issue. Credit reports include all relevant information about an individual’s financial accounts, as well as personal details such as address information and employment specifics. If there are changes to a credit report, even if it is as minimal as the wrong address, they should be corrected immediately.
Making corrections to credit reports is done through each credit bureau individually. Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion each have an online credit report dispute process that is relatively easy to navigate and track a dispute’s progress over time. For older adults, however, it may be easier to request a correction in the form of a letter. A sample form letter for disputing information on a credit report can be found here.
Reviewing credit reports can be done as infrequently as once per year, but many experts suggest staggering credit report pulls to help check more often. This is done by simply requesting one of the three credit reports from the credit bureaus at a time, and following up three to four months later for the second, and then the third. Checking a credit score can be done more often, such as once per month. Seniors may also want to enroll in a credit monitoring service that sends alerts when new activity on a credit report appears. Credit monitoring services may be available for free through some companies, or they may be purchased on a subscription basis from others.
Monitoring Financial Accounts
In addition to paying attention to their credit reports and scores, it is important for seniors to also monitor bank account activity. Most seniors live on a fixed income, whether that be a pension, social security, or retirement account distributions. Because of this predictability, it may not be a common thought to check on bank account balances from time to time. However, when personal financial information is compromised because of identity theft or financial fraud, bank accounts may be the first place criminals go to get access to fast cash.
Older adults should check their bank account activity with each statement that comes. Be sure to check for any transactions that are incorrect, are larger amounts than remembered, or accounts that are not in the senior’s name. In the most egregious cases of identity theft and financial fraud, bank accounts are wiped clean without the true account owner knowing. However, more financial criminals are moving funds in small, sometimes unnoticeable amounts to keep from being caught quickly. Older adults should take time to review bank account activity for this reason, and report any discrepancies to the financial institution immediately.
Other tips on protecting bank accounts from fraudulent financial activity include covering a PIN when using a debit card, and not sharing bank account details with unknown or untrusted sources.
With so many companies having access to personal, sensitive financial information, it is crucial for older Americans to recognize the risk of fraud, identity theft, and the issues that can arise due to unauthorized access to credit. These steps, including a review credit reports, monitoring credit scores, and paying close attention to non-credit accounts through the bank, are the first lines of defense in preventing vulnerable older adults from the impacts of financial fraud.