Among our greatest challenges as a nation
today is making America a safe place
to grow old
.”  — Lisa Nerenberg

Learn About Elder Abuse

Identity Theft Against Elders

It’s been called the “signature crime of the digital age.” It’s topped the Federal Trade Commission’s list of consumer-fraud complaints for six straight years. In 2007, 3.6 percent of the country’s adults were victims.

According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, there are 4 types of ID theft:
  • Financial ID Theft: Thieves use victims’ names, Social Security numbers, and other identifying information to apply for telephone service, credit cards or loans, buy merchandise, or lease cars or apartments.
  • Criminal ID Theft: Imposters provide other people’s information instead of their own when stopped by law enforcement. Eventually, when warrants for arrest are issued, they’re in the victims’ names.
  • Identity Cloning: Imposters use victims’ information to establish new lives. This form of ID theft may be committed by undocumented immigrants, criminals avoiding warrants, people hiding from abusive situations, or people with poor work and financial histories.
  • Business or Commercial Identity Theft: Businesses may also be victims. Typically, perpetrators get credit cards or checking accounts in the names of businesses, which find out when unhappy suppliers send collection notices or their business rating scores are affected.

Identity theft is sometimes referred to as an “enabling crime” in that thieves use stolen identities to commit other crimes, including credit card fraud, immigration fraud, Internet scams, and even terrorism. Con artists are increasingly stealing homes by fabricating Social Security cards, driver's licenses, or other forms of homeowners’ identification, forging signatures on property transfer forms, and filing them with county deeds recorders. There are various versions of the scam, some of which target desperate homeowners facing foreclosure (McCormick, 2008).

Elders and ID Theft

  • Fourteen residents at two Northern Kentucky nursing homes couldn’t figure out why they were being billed for large-screen televisions, clothes dryers, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in electronics. It turned out that employees had stolen their identities and got credit cards in their names. One of the thieves had prior arrests for theft, domestic violence, and drug charges but had been hired using someone else’s stolen identity.
  • An aide in an assisted living facility stole the identity of an 89-year-old resident and used it to run up over $3,500 in fraudulent credit card charges for jewelry, furniture, and clothing. She also wrote checks to herself from a bank account belonging to the victim and diverted the woman's mail from the facility to her own home. • After a home care provider was charged with felony residential burglary, felony elder abuse, false imprisonment, and preventing her elderly client from seeking help by cutting his phone line, it was learned that she’d been working for the last six months under the name of her sister, a certified home care provider. The offender had a previous conviction and had served jail time under her sister’s name.
  • In 2004, hackers gained access to a database that contained the names, addresses, telephone and Social Security numbers, and birth dates of 1.4 million recipients of In-Home Support Services in California. The data was being used for research purposes by the University of California, Berkeley. Although investigators haven’t determined if the personal information has been misused, the California Department of Social Services, which operates the program, has encouraged all recipients to obtain credit reports to make sure that they haven’t been victimized. Because it took a month to detect the compromise, it’s unlikely that the culprits will be found.

Although research indicates that elders are at no greater risk of identity theft than non-elders, the scenarios above suggest why elders may be vulnerable to certain forms of ID theft. Linda Foley, executive director of the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center, has suggested other reasons:

  • Many hospitals and nursing homes use patients' Social Security numbers as identification information; some even print the numbers on patients’ wristbands.
  • Many seniors carry their Medicare cards, which include Social Security numbers, with them in case of emergency.
  • Seniors are more susceptible to muggers because of frailty.

There’s also the issue of access. Elders with disabilities are likely to have in-home helpers, including personal care attendants, friendly visitors, meal services, etc. The current shortage of in-home helpers has resulted in more seniors hiring “independent providers” directly from newspaper ads or referral services. These workers, who are less likely to have been screened or to be supervised by agencies, have access to elders’ homes, property and documents. Police are also reporting that more attendants are working under assumed names.

The families of the deceased are particularly vulnerable. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center (2007), thieves watch obituaries, steal death certificates, and obtain information about the deceased from Social Security Death Index files. Because the Social Security Administration does not promptly transmit Death Master Files to financial institutions, accounts and credit files may stay open for years. Thieve access the accounts, leaving surviving spouses or other family members with debt or other problems. Family members of deceased persons may also commit ID theft. This is particularly like when the deceased suffered from lengthy illnesses or if there was conflict prior to the death.

The Web site of Michigan’s attorney general describes a case involving three people who were arrested for stealing the identities of more than 100 decedents. One of the alleged perps worked in a hospital emergency room and sent text messages containing dying patients’ personal identifying information to her grown son, which he and his wife used to get credit cards. They also used information they found in obituaries to conduct research on the hospital's database.

An AARP-commissioned study, which used Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaint data from 2001, found that complainants age 50 and older were more likely than younger people to report certain ID theft crimes (Walters & Jackson, 2003):

  • Fraudulently using a complainant's existing credit card account
  • Fraudulently establishing a new credit card account in the complainant's name
  • Fraudulently opening a wireless account in the complainant's name
  • Fraudulently using a complainant's information to commit check fraud
  • Fraudulently taking out a personal or business loan in the complainant's name
  • Stealing a complainant's identifying information and using it in unsuccessful attempts to commit fraud

Seniors have also been shown to be less likely to take steps to prevent ID theft or mitigate its impact. An AARP study found that seniors are less knowledgeable than others about tools to protect their financial identities and reduce their risk of victimization, despite the fact that many are very fearful of being victimized.

Who are the Perpetrators?

There’s some controversy about who’s most likely to commit ID theft. Reports by Javelin Strategy & Research (2008) have challenged the common perception that ID theft is a high tech crime that’s usually committed by computer hackers. Javelin further suggests that half of known offenders are family or friends who commit thefts the “old fashioned way” with thieves getting their information from lost or stolen wallets, credit cards, and checks.

But late last year, the Center for Identity Management and Information Protection at Utica College challenged Javelin’s findings in a report that showed that just 8% of the 500 ID thieves arrested by the U.S. Secret Service from 2000 to 2006 were related to or acquainted with their victims. The report further revealed that the most common tool for ID theft was “technology devices,” including credit card encoders (Menn, 2007). The Utica researchers claimed that earlier studies, including Javelin’s, were based on surveys of victims who knew how they’d been robbed, unlike the majority of victims who never find out who their abusers are. They further implied that Javelin’s results may have been influenced by the fact that the firm receives funding from big businesses like Visa and Wells Fargo, which benefits from electronic transactions.

Both sides concede that some of the differences in their findings may be explained by how the studies were done. The Utica study used information from the Secret Service, which gets involved in criminal ID theft by dint of its role protecting U.S. financial systems. The agency typically takes high-dollar cases that are more likely to involve businesses, strangers, and technology than Javelin, which reaches a broader base of victims through telephone polling. The Utica study also only looked at cases that were solved, a tiny minority of the actual instances.

What’s Being Done to Help Victims?

Although program to warn the public about ID theft and track down offenders have proliferated in recent years, relatively little has been done to help victims, many of whom don’t have the resources to seek redress civilly. Other needed services include advocacy with creditors and benefits programs, assistance in contesting criminal charges, and mental health services. 

Promising Practices:

In February 2008, the American Bar Association passed a resolution urging national, federal, state, tribal, territorial, and local bar associations, in cooperation with lawyer referral and legal aid programs, to assist or provide legal representation for victims of identity theft. See ABA and ID Theft

  • In 2007, the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) funded four projects to help victims of identity theft and financial crime. 
    1. The Identity Theft Resource Center assists victims by phone and email and maintains an extensive list of Web based resources and online victim guides in English and Spanish. 
    2. The Texas legal Services Center operates the “Victims Initiative for Counseling, Advocacy and Restoration of the Southwest (VICARS),” which provides free legal assistance and creditor intervention to victims of identity theft and other financial crime who live in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Colorado. 
    3. The Maryland Crime Victim Resource Center develops tools to educate and assist victims with self-advocacy and provides pro bono legal services. It also provides training to law enforcement in the state of Maryland.
    4. Atlanta Victim Assistance Inc, assists victims in Atlanta, Georgia with education, advocacy, and training to reduce the risks of identity theft and other financial crime. 
  • Identity theft prevention and best practices. This Web forum, sponsored by the Office for Victims of Crime, is hosted by Jim Wright, Director of the Seniors and Crime Prevention Initiative at the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) and former Director of TRIAD, a program of the National Sheriff’s Association.
  • It’s MI Identity,” a program of the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, was created to: 1) raise awareness about how senior citizens can prevent identity theft; 2) assist state and local law enforcement combat identity theft in the senior population; and 3) determine the extent of victimization in resident care facilities. Activities include facility-wide credit checks for residents. The program was launched in response to investigations that revealed that resident care facility employees, pool agency employees, and individuals posing as employees, were using their position to gain access to important personal information, which they used to obtain credit cards and access financial accounts. For more information on “It’s MI Identity,” visit the website of Michigan’s attorney general.
  • Clergy Against Senior Exploitation (CASE) Partnership, a program operated by the Denver District Attorney’s office, works with faith-based partners to develop and present training programs on elder financial exploitation (including identity theft) for clergy and older congregational members.  A community advocate helps individuals from the faith communities navigate the legal and social services system, and provides written information, including monthly fraud alerts, for use in newsletters and community bulletins. The project has a grant to assist other communities replicate the program. To learn more, see CASE.
  • Ohio passed legislation that enhances the penalty for those who commit identity fraud against the elderly or disabled and authorizes the Attorney General's office to issue the Identity Theft Verification Passport program, which provides victims with a method of demonstrating to law enforcement and creditors that their identity has been stolen, rehabilitating their credit history and identifying any fraudulent criminal charges. Once a police report is taken and the victim’s identification is verified, victims file PASSPORT applications with the Attorney General’s office. The office enters information, include photographs, signatures and fingerprints on a secured website and issues victims PASSPORT cards. For more on the Passport verification program, see the Identity Theft Verification Passport Program website.

Resources on Identity Theft Against Elders

  • Identity Theft Resource Center   The ITRC is a nonprofit, national organization that provides excellent consumer and victim support and public education.  It also advises governmental agencies, legislators, law enforcement, and businesses.
  • Privacy Rights Clearinghouse    A nonprofit consumer organization that offers a hotline for consumers to report privacy abuses and request information on ways to protect their privacy. They produce an extensive series of excellent fact sheets on privacy issues.
  • AARP’s Preventing Identity Theft Seminar    This online seminar covers preventing identity theft, mitigating the risk of further harm, making reports, obtaining credit freezes, and other important topics.
  • Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft website provides information on what victims of ID theft should do to reduce their risk of revictimization and protect their financial information.  It provides a complaint form that can be submitted to police when reporting and to help verify information when dealing with creditors and credit bureaus.
  • Consumer Sentinel collects information about consumer fraud and identity theft from the FTC and over 125 other organizations and makes it available to law enforcement partners across the nation and throughout the world for use in their investigations. The database has over 4.3 million complaints and is accessible to over 1,700 law enforcement agencies – including every state attorney general in the U.S. and consumer protection agencies in 23 nations.


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