Being a victim of identity theft is just the beginning. Resolving it can be a stressful and lengthy process, and according to a pair of experts from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, it’s always better to protect in advance against scams and fraud.
Some $8.8 billion was lost to lottery sweepstakes and other scams last year alone, according to the Federal Trade Commission — a 54 percent increase from 2021. Elder fraud cost Americans older than 60 more than $966 million in 2020, according to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center.
In the United States and other countries, these numbers are only growing as criminals increasingly use online scams that target older adults — especially those living alone.
“Even though we talk about this a lot and we give prevention tips, it seems that people are still falling victim to these scams. And that's why it's so important to give this information out,” said Donna Harris, a public information representative for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. “Take the information and share with others so that we can get those numbers down and put the fraudsters where they need to be: behind bars.”
Harris was part of a pair of webinars hosted by AARP Long Island and RichnerLive — a sister division to Herald Community Newspapers — addressing these very issues affecting older Americans. She was joined by Michael Del Giudice, a postal inspector and team leader within the same division.
The inspection service is the oldest federal law enforcement agency dating back to 1770. Postal inspectors are charged with protecting U.S. Postal Service customers and infrastructure from crimes that impact mail. Identity theft is a crime where an imposter obtains key pieces of personally identifiable information — like Social Security or driver's license numbers — to impersonate someone else.
“I hear from so many people that are recent victims,” said Bernard Macias, associate state director for Long Island with AARP New York. “It's so disruptive. It's so violating, it's hurtful. It's life-changing to be a victim.”
Identity theft has become a big problem in the United States and abroad due to so much information being available on the internet. Every day, many unwittingly open their digital door to a world of strangers who could be scammers. In many cases, the results can be devastating — especially to older and vulnerable adults.
Even though many of these scammers are miles away, they can virtually enter homes through deceptive offers, designed to steal money and financial information.
“Once they have your information, it's just like your DNA,” Harris said. “They find out who you are, and they can use it to defraud you. This is why we routinely discuss current trends and scams to make aware of what is lurking behind the next pitch or offer that seems too good to be true.”
Identity theft is tops in New York for fraud, according to Consumer Sentinel Data Book. Limiting social media presence can be one of the best ways to protect yourself. Scammers will research Facebook profiles and Twitter feeds to obtain personal information as a way to make themselves appear more credible when they do make contact.
It is best to never advertise yourself carelessly online, and be careful when posting or tagging photos at vacation locations in real-time.
“Unfortunately, we've become a digital society where our information is just out there,” Del Giudice said. “A lot of times it's a long time before you even recognize that you've been a victim of a scam. Because we store a lot of information on computer systems there, they're also vulnerable to attacks.”
Also helping is not just throwing away documents with sensitive information like your Social Security number, but shredding it. One such mass shredding event happened this past weekend at Nassau Community College, attended by U.S. Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, and AARP state director Beth Finkel.
If you believe you've been victim of identity theft, report it to the inspection service at (877) 876-2455.