A generation ago, most families didn’t think about financial fraud. Today, it can come in many forms – over the phone, through the mail and increasingly, online. It’s an equal opportunity crime that affects consumers of all ages.
For the 15th straight year, the Federal Trade Commission tapped identity theft as the number one source of consumer complaints in its 2014 Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book (https://www.ftc.gov) released in February. The agency also noted a “large increase” in so-called “imposter” scams – phone calls and emails from thieves purporting to represent the government as a way to steal data and money from unsuspecting adults.
Young people – particularly students – may be the fastest-growing group of fraud targets. Due to their dependence and sometimes unwitting use of computers and mobile devices, young people may be the greatest potential victims of financial fraud, according to a 2015 study (https://www.javelinstrategy.com) by Javelin Strategy & Research. More than 64 percent of respondents said they were not “very concerned” about identity fraud, but were far more likely to find out they were fraud victims long after the damage occurred, such as through a call from a debt collector or a rejection letter from a lender.
Most consumers under the age of 18 shouldn’t have a credit record at all. But as digital thieves become more sophisticated and federal agencies become occasionally vulnerable to hackers, critical privacy data like Social Security numbers – which many parents obtain for their children in infancy to save or invest money or buy insurance on their behalf – could be at risk years before a child ever opens a bank account or applies for a loan.
For all of these reasons, it may be time to think about a family fraud plan. Here are some steps to consider.
• Check the accuracy of all family credit data. Parents should begin by checking their own credit reports (https://www.annualcreditreport.com/index.action) to make sure creditor data and loan balances are accurate and no inaccuracies or unfamiliar lenders have crept into their information. Once clear, adult children can make sure senior relatives are taking similar steps. As for minors, the three major credit agencies – TransUnion, Equifax and Experian – have their own website guidelines for confirming and evaluating a minor’s credit data.
• Make sure mailboxes are safe from thieves and any document with an account number or identifying data is destroyed before it is placed in the trash. The same goes for tax returns that are no longer needed.
• Learn how to protect all mobile computer and handheld data and have a plan in place in case any family member loses a smartphone, tablet or laptop/desktop computer. Tips are available online, from smartphone service providers and device manufacturers.
• Online, by phone and in person, be wary of collection demands or requests for Social Security numbers or other specific account data unless the identity of the caller can be verified. Fraudulent calls are called “vishing” scams, similar to “phishing” scams that involve fraudulent emails, texts and websites used to illegally collect personal data.
• Install all software security updates immediately on mobile devices and computers and ensure passwords are unique and frequently updated.
• Sign up for fraud alerts from banks, credit card issuers or investment companies to receive immediate word of unusual or potentially illegal activity on accounts.
Bottom line: Identity thieves and other financial fraudsters watch consumer behavior closely and are equally adept at stealing money and data in person, over the phone and online. Have a plan in place to protect the entire family.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney.