Retirees, Protect Yourself From Thieves Online

Scams targeting the elderly are frequent. Here are some expert ways to build your protection from scammers.

Senior with virus warning on computer monitor screen
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Whether it’s fake online shopping sites, identity theft or scam artists using phone or email, fraud is on the rise, with a record 1.3 million cases in the first nine months of 2020, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Although anyone can become a victim, FTC data show that consumers age 80 and older are far more likely to be scammed by phone and lose the most money, a median of $1,250. “Even if you do everything perfectly, you can still be susceptible to fraud,” says Shameka Walker, a fraud and identity theft program manager for the FTC.

By now, you probably know not to give out sensitive information to anyone contacting you and that credit cards offer more protection against fraud than debit cards. With a credit card, the most you’ll be responsible for is $50. Debit cards, on the other hand, could leave you paying for all of a thief’s spending spree if you don’t report it within 60 days of the statement date.

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But there’s a lot more to guarding against fraud than knowing which card to use. In fact, it’s the things you may not know that could cost you the most money.

Even the Savviest Consumers Can Be Defrauded

Fraudsters don’t just target the gullible. “I see victims from all walks of life and all professions,” says Alisa Bralove-Scherr, deputy director of mediation in the Maryland Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division.

In fact, the biggest mistake people make is to think they’re immune, says Bryan Roslund, assistant state’s attorney for Montgomery County, Md. Thieves keep honing their craft, using whatever they can to take over your bank or retirement account. “This is where they excel,” he says, by finding new ways to take advantage of you.

For example, Roslund says, if you challenge a caller who warns that you have not shown up for jury duty, a scammer knows how to shift tactics immediately — usually by admitting you’re right and that they were working from the “wrong list.”

Sophisticated criminals even monitor emails to intercept lucrative transactions. Roslund had a case where a financial agent lost $30,000 when he wired money to a Florida restaurant because someone made a tiny change to the recipient’s email address.

Online Shopping is How Identity Thieves Often Find You

According to the FTC, you’re more likely to suffer fraud through online purchases, and COVID-19 has only encouraged this equal opportunity crime to flourish as more Americans turn to websites for socially distant shopping. A 2020 Pitney Bowes survey found that 45% of shoppers bought more than half of their goods online, three times the pre-pandemic level.

Scammers capture buyers — especially those looking for deals or hard-to-find products — with convincing emails and websites that appear to be from a known company. In November 2020, the FTC filed a complaint against the operators of 25 websites claiming to be Lysol or Clorox with high-demand products for sale.

Consumers should scrutinize URLs for subtle misspellings or punctuation at the end, which can be signs of a bogus company website. A site with an “https” address is more secure but not necessarily legitimate. With emails, check for irregularities by hovering your mouse over a sender’s address before opening a message that appears to be from a known source.

A Credit Freeze is Not the Same as a Credit Lock

Freezing your credit deters someone from obtaining a loan, phone or credit card in your name. A freeze restricts access to your credit report, which most institutions require before approving a new account. You will need to contact all three credit bureaus (Equifax, Trans-Union and Experian) to get a PIN or password. “It took me about 15 minutes to do,” says John Buzzard, a financial fraud and security expert with Javelin Strategy & Research during a recent AARP webcast.

You will need to lift the freeze when applying for loans or credit. Under federal law, if you request a lift online or by phone, a credit bureau must do so free of charge and within one hour, but you may want to allow more time, particularly if you can’t find the PIN.

A credit lock offers similar protections, except that you don’t get a PIN and you can lift the lock yourself. But the convenience comes at a price: Locks don’t have the backing of federal law that freezes do, leaving you vulnerable if something goes wrong. Plus, one of the bureaus charges for the lock (you need all three for it to be effective).

You can also lock credit cards you rarely use so that they can’t be used to make purchases. Card issuers will do this for free, or you may be able to using a mobile app. Unlocking is simple and immediate.

Credit Monitoring Services Don’t Prevent Identity Theft

Although these services alert you to an identity threat and help with recovery, your identity can still be stolen. “You can do all the things [the services] do” for free, says the FTC’s Walker. Plus, thanks to last year’s stimulus package, the three credit bureaus are offering consumers free weekly credit reports until April 20, 2021.

Paying With an App Offers the Most Safety

Mitchal Smith, owner of credit processing company Prometheyan Theory in Raleigh, N.C., recommends using an app such as Google Pay or Apple Pay instead of carrying a card that can be stolen or scanned.

The apps are simple to install, though you will need your bank’s approval to link your account to your smartphone. To pay, you tap your phone at a payment terminal. The apps are safer because you don’t give the merchant your credit card number. Instead, Google or Apple assigns a different virtual account number for every transaction you make.


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Ann Marie Maloney
Contributing Author, Kiplinger's Retirement Report