Protecting Your Parents (and Yourself) From Identity Thieves
Identity thieves and other criminals often prey on aging seniors. They know that someone who is a bit confused or forgetful may be persuaded to provide information about their bank account, Social Security number (SSN), date of birth or other private information. But identity theft is a serious problem for people of all ages, and knowing how to respond is important for you as well as your aging parent.
I myself was the victim of identity theft in April when I learned that someone else had used my SSN to submit an income tax return to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) – presumably for a big refund that would be deposited in someone else's account.
What ensued was a full day of waiting on hold, filing reports, and learning a lot more about the realities of identity theft. I would like to share my experience so you can learn from a "real-world" situation.
After pouring myself a cup of coffee that morning, I dialed the IRS, listened to their list of confusing prompts and then waited for more than 45 minutes before being "disconnected." The same thing happened when I dialed in a second and third time. But without any assistance from the IRS and a little luck, I was able to piece together what to do.
While on hold I emailed a money manager that I work with who told me about an Identity Theft Affidavit (form 14039) that you can find on the IRS website (www.irs.gov). I downloaded the form, filled it out and attached it to my tax return, which I filed manually, by snail mail, rather than electronically, the following day.
Once this form is submitted to the IRS, you will receive a PIN number that you must include on all tax submissions in the future in order to file your taxes. Unlike many tax forms, you can complete this yourself. You can also give it to the accountant who prepares your tax return. If you have questions about this I suggest you speak with an Accountant.
As luck would have it, I was checking my Twitter feed while on hold with the IRS and saw that Jonelle Marte, a financial blogger and reporter for the Washington Post had just posted an article, “Report cites a second blow for identity theft victims: Long waits from the IRS.” She noted that “only 40% of callers will get through to an agent, and it was clear I was NOT going to be one of them.
So, I quickly emailed Ms. Marte, who responded right away with some helpful advice. (By the way, her well written, easy-to-read blog is full of useful financial information.) She told me three things I should do that day:
1. Contact one of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) to place a “fraud alert” on my credit records. This will help prevent a downgrade in your credit rating, but it also means that you cannot apply for credit within at least 90 days. Once you place the alert with one of the companies, they will alert the other two companies. You will receive a notification from them with a "code" to allow you to get a free credit report to make sure the fraud has not gone "deeper" than what was initially identified.
2. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at www.identitytheft.com or by using the FTC Identify Hotline at 1-877-438-4338-- Their website contains a lot of helpful information.
3. File a report with your local police department, which may have a complaint form that you can download
As extra precaution, and in the event that the identity theft was more than just for my taxes, I went to my banks and notified them, so that no one could apply for credit in my name or withdraw my money.
Fortunately, when identity theft involves filing a fake tax return, it usually doesn't impact your credit cards, but remains confined to the taxes. Nonetheless, this experience has made me protect myself and now have engaged the services of a company that will protect me from ID and Credit Fraud. (this will be the subject of another post!!).
But you should know that you will have to navigate this process on your own – or on behalf of your aging family member – because the IRS provides no assistance. Also, let your parents know that the IRS will never contact them by telephone. In fact, IRS impersonators have been know to call people and convince them that they need to pay their taxes right then and there. Beware of this scam!
Nearly one month later, I am starting the entire follow up process. I’ll keep you posted about what happens. Because we can all learn from each other, I would be interested in hearing your comments about other personal experiences with identity theft. It's a very serious problem for everyone.