Healthy Aging Column – be Cautious of Identity Theft

Seventy-year-old Harriet Finley went to her mailbox and got a bill from a cellular phone company. Since she didn’t have a cell phone, she thought that the company had her name mixed up with someone else. A couple of days later, she called the company and found out that the bill was indeed hers.

According to the company, Harriet had visited them, gotten the phone and signed the agreement – and she had not paid her bill for three months. The clerk had the agreement in front of him but accused her of writing in the wrong address. Harriet knew this had not happened.  She called the police, who suggested that she call her credit card companies and the three national credit reporting agencies to report that her identity may have been stolen. Harriet was shocked that she had to do this. She was always very careful with her checking account and her credit cards.  

So how did this happen? An unscrupulous temporary employee in a medical clinic made an extra copy of Harriet’s insurance card, which included her Social Security number as her identification number. The employee then sold Harriet’s number to someone who was then able to find out almost everything about her.

Unfortunately, the damage had long been done by the time she got the cellular phone bill.  There were credit cards in her name that she did not apply for along with sign-ups for utility and cable television. The criminals also had changed the mailing address for her Social Security check and stolen money from two of her savings accounts.

Identity theft is one of the major crimes in our society today. It is silent and unobtrusive until you find out someone has opened accounts in your name or emptied your savings and checking accounts. The bad credit record is yours, but the hardest part to bear, especially for the elderly, is the loss of income that can happen if someone steals your identity.

Here are some things you can do to prevent it from happening to you.     

– Never give out your Social Security number except to those working with your taxes and Social Security. Never carry your Social Security card or number in your wallet or purse except when applying for Social Security benefits. If your health insurance uses it for identification, copy both sides of the card, black out the Social Security number and carry the copy.

– Clean out your purse or wallet and carry only the credit card you use the most. Do not carry any account numbers, personal identification numbers or your passport.

– Personal information printed on your checks should never contain your Social Security number.  If you have a post office box, use that address instead of your house address on checks as well as a work phone number rather than a home phone number.

– Be careful about PIN numbers and passwords for various accounts. Do not use any numbers or letters that can be identified with you. Ideas for passwords might be a name of a childhood pet, your favorite color spelled backwards or the first line of a favorite poem and the first letter of each word.

– Do not give any personal information to anyone who calls you. A current scam has to do with "no call" lists and asking personal information to verify you are on the list or you didn’t get on the list, and they are helping to place you on it.  

– Make a copy of everything in your wallet including your credit cards and driver’s license.  Know where to find the phone numbers to call if these things are stolen.

– Keep all personal information from prying eyes. Do not leave bills, checks or social security information out in plain sight for others to see.

– Shred or burn any paperwork that shows account numbers and other personal data that you want to throw out.

– Use a public mail box or the post office to send mail. Identity thieves have taken mail out of a home mail box and "washed" the checks so they can write in their own amount.

If your identity has been stolen, here are the steps you should take immediately.

– Call the police and file a report. Get a copy of the report. You will need it to verify the theft to creditors.

– Call the national credit reporting agencies and place a fraud alert on your name and social security number. Any company checking your credit will know your information has been stolen. These are the companies and the numbers you need to call:  Equifax 1-800-525-6285; Experian (formerly TRW) 1-888-397-3742; Trans Union 1-800-680-7289.

– Call the Social Security Fraud Line at 1-800-269-0271 and inform them of the theft.

– Call your credit card companies and banks and close all your accounts with the notation that it was "closed at the customer’s request." Get new accounts and ATM cards with new PIN numbers. There are monetary limits for the unauthorized use of credit cards and ATM cards, but

you must act immediately. A stolen or lost ATM or debit card must be reported within two days and credit cards within 60 days.  

– Keep copies of any and all documents sent to companies contacted when dealing with your stolen identity. When contacting businesses by phone, write down the name of the person you talked to, the date and what was discussed.

It may take months or even years to get your good name back. To help, the Federal Trade Commission has a packet of information on what to do in the event of identity theft. The packet contains information and forms needed to deal with the situation. To get a copy, call 1-877-ID-THEFT (1-877-438-4338), download it at or write to the Identity Theft Data Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington DC 20580. Keep these forms with copies of your personal information as a precaution of what to do should identity thief happen to you. Hopefully it never will.

For additional articles on Healthy Aging, go to the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Web site at Go to info-online, click on consumer and family, and then scroll down to Healthy Aging.  

By Bonnie Sherman, Family and Consumer Extension Agent, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Golden Plains Area