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Protect Yourself Against Credit Card Fraud and Scams

AARP speakers offer tips for fraud protection

John Ramsay, prevented a financial loss when his identity was stolen. Groups can schedule talks from AARP volunteers on how to guard against fraud.

Quick action by John Ramsay, 81, of University City, prevented a financial loss when his identity was stolen. Groups can schedule talks from AARP volunteers on how to guard against fraud. — Whitney Curtis

John Ramsay was inspecting his credit card bill at his home in University City about four years ago when he noticed several charges that totaled about $2,000. The purchases had been made in Michigan, and Ramsay hadn't been to Michigan recently.

See also: Fraud alert vs. credit freeze.

He alerted the credit card company. It turned out someone was using Ramsay's credit card information in Michigan.

Ramsay, 81, hadn't lost his card; someone somewhere had scanned in the information after he used it. Ramsay didn't have to cover the fraudulent charges, but the theft of his identity was jarring.

"That was sort of a shock. We stay on top of this stuff, but it happens no matter what we do."

Identity theft is the No. 1 consumer complaint nationwide, according to the Federal Trade Commission. An FTC report said Missouri ranked 20th last year with nearly 4,000 complaints per 100,000 residents. People 50 or older filed 28 percent of them.

Those statistics reflect just a fraction of the actual cases of identity theft, said Michelle Corey, president and CEO of the St. Louis Better Business Bureau (BBB).

"Many fail to report it because they're embarrassed," she said.

Others may not realize they've been victimized, often finding out when they apply for a loan or get a late payment notice from a business they've never patronized.

Recently, Corey said, the BBB uncovered a scheme in which a company ran classified ads for jobs that didn't exist and charged the applicants screening fees. Applicants worried that personal information they provided would be used fraudulently.

Older people need to be especially vigilant, said Craig Eichelman, AARP Missouri state director.

"People spend a lifetime acquiring a nest egg, and unsavory characters want to take that from you."

AARP Missouri sends volunteers from its speakers bureau to advise community groups how to protect themselves. Among the suggestions:

  • Don't give your Social Security number or bank account number to anyone over the phone, even if they claim to be from a bank or credit card company.

  • Don't carry Social Security or Medicare cards in your wallet.

  • Shred credit card offers and other mail that has your personal information on it.

  • Don't put mail with your signature in an unlocked curbside mailbox where it could be stolen.

  • Install good antivirus protection on your computer and erase the hard drive before you discard the computer; it may contain personal information.

  • Download "Know Your Rights: A Missouri Consumer Guide" (PDF) or call 1-800-392-8222 to request a copy from the Attorney General's office by mail.

Next: Request a speaker on preventing ID theft for your group. >>

"The basic idea is to keep any kind of document secure, whether it's at home or with you," said Arthur Visor, 77, of St. Louis County, a member of the AARP speakers bureau.

Although the theft of money is the usual object of identity thieves, it's not the only one, Visor said. Some may use a stolen ID to get treated at a hospital or to apply for a job.

Mary Serbi, another AARP speaker, said older people can be vulnerable to phone sales solicitations or bogus prize winnings.

Serbi, 82, of Maryland Heights, said older people are tempted to give out personal information, "especially if they're living alone, because they need someone to talk to, and they don't think about it."

To request a speaker for your group of 20 or more people, send an email to at least four weeks in advance with contact information.

Tim Poor is a writer living in Clayton, Mo.

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