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Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

ID thieves target seniors without online account

Gordon Smith has been collecting Social Security benefits for 22 years, and his monthly check has always arrived like clockwork.

Until this month, that is. He checked his bank statement, and the money wasn’t there. He called the bank, which verified that his Social Security payment never arrived.

So Smith called the Social Security Administration, was told he’d be on hold for 45 minutes, and finally, after an hour and five minutes, reached a human who was able to explain what had happened.

Someone had gotten their hands on Smith’s Social Security number and a little bit of additional information about him, gone online and set up a “My Social Security” account and had his Social Security payment sent to them instead.

Smith said he also didn’t get his 1099 form, a sort of W-2 for people getting Social Security. That was probably redirected to someone else, too.

Smith quickly got the problem resolved and was paid his benefits, but he had become the victim of an all-new crime.

In January of last year, the Social Security Administration created what is called My Social Security accounts. The accounts let people go online and determine what their benefits will be, print out statements as verification of income, change their address – anything they want.

The problem is that Smith, who has been receiving benefits for a long time, never created that online account. That allowed crooks to go online and steal his benefits.

That’s not unusual. About 60 million people are receiving Social Security benefits, but only about 10 million have created the online accounts.

It didn’t take crooks very long to spot the opportunity. The first reports of fraud started popping up last spring, and so far there have been nearly 30,000 attempts to set up suspicious My Social Security accounts, the Social Security Administration says.

The problem is easy enough to correct. Social Security just places blocks on the accounts of fraud victims, and it has strengthened the online registration process to make identity verification more stringent.

Smith was able to spot the fraud almost immediately because he handles his own finances, but he wonders about other people.

“How about nursing home people?” he asks.

Even if you already receive Social Security benefits, you can go online and set up a My Social Security account, which includes setting a password to help protect you. Crooks won’t be able to open an account in your name because an account already exists.

A lot of seniors, though, aren’t online, which creates a roadblock for them.

Officials with the Social Security Administration remind people to protect their personal information by not responding to phone calls or emails asking for Social Security numbers, banking information and other details.

Just another blessing of the online age.

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