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Take Steps to Guard Against Identity Theft

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in the January 2008 issue of Kiplinger's Retirement Report. To subscribe, click here.

In 1994, George Handiboe, a nurse's aide, began caring for an elderly man in Steelton, Pa. After the man died four years later, Handiboe, who lived in nearby Harrisburg, Pa., remained close with the widow. He took her to doctor's appointments, to dinner and to run errands. But it turned out he wasn't a friend -- he was quietly assuming her identity.

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Handiboe opened credit-card accounts in the woman's name, according to the Pennsylvania attorney general's office. He also opened joint accounts, posing as the woman's son, law enforcement officials say. The family became suspicious after the woman moved into an assisted-living facility and her real son began receiving calls from creditors and collection agencies.

During a search of Handiboe's home, agents seized a handstamp bearing the woman's signature. Handiboe, then 45, was charged with identity theft and other crimes in this case, and he was charged with similar crimes against a man for whom he had provided home care. In May 2007, he was sentenced to three to six years in state prison, prosecutors say.


Unfortunately, identity-theft crimes directed at seniors are far from rare. "Senior citizens are targeted in frauds and schemes," says Nils Frederiksen, spokesman for the Pennsylvania attorney general's office. "We know that thieves are looking to take advantage of them."

Thieves often go after the elderly because many have more cash reserves than younger people, and the elderly may be more trusting when telemarketers call for information. Some of the oldest seniors may not closely monitor their accounts. And many are not savvy about Internet scams. For instance, thieves assume seniors may respond to e-mails, perhaps purporting to be from the Social Security Administration, seeking personal information.

As with the Handiboe case, home-care aides, as well as retirement-home staff, may have easy access to a senior's records. Some retirees carry their Medicare card, which displays their Social Security number. One of the most important pieces of information to identity thieves is your Social Security number. "It's the holy grail," says Linda Foley, founder of Identity Theft Resource Center, a San Diego–based nonprofit organization.

Consider these examples of identity theft targeted toward seniors:

-- In December, a North Carolina woman was sentenced to 18 years in prison after being convicted of identity theft involving two elderly women living in a retirement community in Illinois. She was accused of stealing a total of $116,000 from the women's bank accounts. The thief obtained their information through repeated calls to the two women, according to the prosecutor. The prosecutor says the con artist pretended to be from various companies, such as AT&T and Walgreens, and from the state and federal governments.

-- In October 2006, four people in Michigan were sentenced to prison terms in connection with identity-theft charges involving a woman who lived in an adult-care facility that they owned in East Lansing. The four admitted to stealing as much as $200,000 from the woman, who had dementia, before she died in February 2005, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

-- A Georgia woman was accused in 2004 of being the mastermind of a multistate identity-theft ring. Prosecutors say the woman first scanned obituaries for names and addresses. Then she bought Social Security numbers and credit histories of the dead persons from Internet companies that do background searches, and she resold the information to people with bad credit. The thieves used the information to buy cars and open bank accounts under the names of the deceased.

Identity thieves obtain personal information through a variety of methods: digging through trash, stealing wallets or purses, taking mail from mailboxes, looking over people's shoulders at ATMs, and sending e-mails or letters pretending to be from the government or a company.

In some cases, thieves steal health-insurance and prescription-drug cards in order to obtain medical services or goods. When a thief uses the information to receive medical services, medical identity theft presents another danger for ID-theft victims. The victims may end up receiving the wrong treatment based on information put into a medical record by a provider who gave care to the ID thief.


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