Many Maine consumers unknowingly place themselves at risk, particularly when it comes to identity fraud. Reports of data breaches have become commonplace — from Equifax one year ago to Target to Uber to Home Depot. According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, there have been more than 2,000 data breaches since 2015, impacting more than 7 billion records.
While some security experts say almost all consumers have likely been affected in some manner by a data breach, an AARP survey conducted in Maine shows that many Maine consumers put themselves in even higher jeopardy because of their risky online behavior. For example:
— Reusing passwords: Nearly half (47 percent) of Maine adults have used the same password for more than one online account.
— Bank Account Access: Only 4 in 10 (42 percent) survey respondents reported having online access to all of their bank accounts, limiting their ability to keep a watchful eye on potentially fraudulent activity.
— Credit Report: About half of adults (47 percent) reported that they have experienced fraudulent charges on their credit or debit card, yet very few (22 percent) have placed a free security freeze on their credit report.
In addition, approximately one-third of smartphone users do not use a passcode, potentially exposing a wealth of sensitive, personal information should their device be lost or stolen.
Five year ago, the AARP Fraud Watch Network was launched nationwide, and I became deeply involved in efforts to raise awareness in Maine about scams, fraud and identity theft. Thanks to the participation of a team of volunteer fraud fighters, AARP Maine has given many presentations in the state and collaborated with extraordinary law enforcement partners, local community leaders and many others. Along the way, we have heard cautionary accounts from Mainers who were scammed but also have heard success stories from individuals who shared how they thwarted the intentions of fraudsters by recognizing a scam before it was too late.
It may be that a lot of people feel overwhelmed and have just stopped trying to keep up with the growing need for safer online practices. Two-thirds of those surveyed said that given the number of data breaches that have occurred, they think it is inevitable that criminals will be able to exploit their credit at some point. However, it is important to emphasize that there are powerful things you can do to make sure that your data is protected. Rather than be the next victim, you can be your own best fraud fighter instead.
The AARP Fraud Watch Network recommends Mainers take these steps to protect their digital identity:
Freeze your credit
Put a security freeze in place with all three credit reporting bureaus so that no one can access your credit file or open a new credit account with your information. The process is free. Placing a freeze on your credit report will not affect your ability to use your credit card and will not adversely affect your credit score. Remember, identity theft can affect Maine consumers of all ages and undermine their financial and retirement security. Parents and grandparents should consider placing a credit freeze on their children’s and even grandchildren’s credit reports as a preventive measure.
Set up digital access
Set up online access to all of your financial accounts (bank accounts, credit cards, 401(k)s, etc.) and regularly monitor the accounts so you can stay up to date on all transactions and recognize in a timely manner any fraudulent activity that may occur.
Use separate passwords
Make sure you use unique passwords for each of your online accounts. That way, if one account is hacked, it does not put your other accounts at risk. Keep your passwords in a safe place.
Further, while it is a great modern convenience, using public Wi-Fi is known to be risky. Many public networks lack strong security protections, making it easy for tech-savvy scammers to take advantage of unwary users. Visit www.aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork for more information.
Ironically, working with financial professionals is another scenario that can pose financial risk. Thousands of Mainers depend on IRAs and 401(k)-style plans for their retirement savings. These plans sometimes involve complex financial decisions and risk, leading some consumers to seek guidance from financial professionals. While most financial professionals are trustworthy, there are those who take advantage of hard-working adults by recommending retirement savings options with higher fees, more risk and lower returns to increase their own profits. AARP is urging the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to make necessary changes so that all financial professionals are genuinely held accountable.
Judith Shaw, administrator for the Maine Office of Securities, urges Mainers to call her office first before investing.
“Fraudsters take every opportunity to separate consumers from their money often depriving them of a secure financial future,” Shaw said. “Our office can give you information to make you a better investor and work with you if you are having trouble with your current financial advisor.”
In one shocking example, Shaw’s office recently prosecuted the case of Robert Kenneth Lindell, 53, a former Maine legislator and financial agent. In November, 2018, Lindell was convicted by a Penobscot County Superior Court jury on 15 counts of fraud, theft and tax violations, which included stealing from a trust set up for an elderly client’s child — a disabled veteran. “This is one of the most significant and troubling cases my office has investigated in over a decade,” Shaw said.
Many cases of elder abuse involve financial fraud and scams and all too often are committed by family members or trusted acquaintances. Recognizing a common goal to combat these crimes, more than 100 organizations and individuals in Maine are effectively working together as part of the Maine Council for Elder Abuse Prevention (MCEAP), co-chaired by Shaw. MCEAP encourages all interested parties to learn more at www.elderabuseprevention.info and to consider participating in upcoming meetings as well as the annual Elder Abuse Summit in May.
No matter your financial wherewithal, you deserve to keep your hard-earned money safe and sound. Following the steps outlined here can help you do just that. Scammers are creative and relentless, but the more we work together to raise awareness, report fraud and scams to law enforcement and empower our communities to fight these crimes, the more we can successfully safeguard our financial resources.
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s March 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.