Beware! Your Loved One with Alzheimer's Can Be Targeted for Identity Theft
My answering machine light showed that I had a message. After hitting the “listen” button, I was greeted with the voice of a man identifying himself as working for a financial alert company and needing to speak to me urgently. I quickly picked up the phone and dialed the number he had left. The man proceeded to tell me that my mother – who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and who had been in a nursing home for over 1-1/2 years – was a victim of identity theft.
It turns out that someone had cashed two checks that were in Mom’s name in two different towns. These checks were returned to a bank (which our family had never used) because there was no account. Dad had to file police reports via telephone in both of those cities; as far as we know, the culprit hasn’t been caught. We’re not sure how Mom was targeted by thieves.
Since then, I’ve seen a couple of news stories involving identity theft and Alzheimer’s patients. For instance, the Atlantic Journal-Constitution reported last September that confidential personal and medical information from six residents with Alzheimer’s was strolen from an Atlanta-area nursing home. The culprit was a person who had been hired as a “sitter” to keep the elderly people company.
A Bryan, Texas television station reported in June 2008 that a nursing home employee stole the identity of a resident who also had Alzheimer’s. Police officials indicated that they had similar cases. “"We've had identity thieves that have been everything from nurses...nurses aides to janitorial staff," said Bryan Police Department Sergeant Jackie Maynard.
So how do you stop identity theft? Rutgers University reports that identity thieves want the following personal information:
- A person’s name, address, and phone number.
- The date of birth
- Social Security number
- Driver’s license number
- Credit card information
- Bank account information
- The mother’s maiden name
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) Adult Protective Services (APS) offers a good handbook that gives tips about dealing with various issues surrounding eldercare. The booklet suggests the following in avoiding money-related fraud:
- Avoid or hang up on strangers who want to take your money or know about your finances.
- Say “No!” to anyone who presses you to make an immediate decision.
- Never give anyone a blank check.
- Count your change and check your receipts.
- Don’t give your credit card number over the phone unless it’s a reputable company.
- Be cautious if you don’t have experience in handling money.
The information from both Rutgers and the TDFPS/APS is sound; however, I believe there are additional difficulties in stopping identity theft from hitting a person who has Alzheimer’s. I believe that much of Rutgers’ information (especially Social Security number, driver’s license number, credit card information, and bank account information) should not remain in the possession of a person who has reached a moderate or advanced stage of Alzheimer’s. In retrospect, I worried that my mom – if she had remained living at home -- could been talked into giving this information over the phone to a person who wanted to steal her identity. I don’t believe this is what actually happened in Mom’s case, but as I spent time with her and other people with Alzheimer’s, I could easily see this scenario occuring. I also would encourage caregivers to regularly check all credit card and bank statements that are in the name of the person who has Alzheimer’s.
I’d also suggest that if the loved one who has Alzheimer’s lives at home, the caregiver may need to screen phone calls so that potential thieves don’t get through. I’ve seen people with Alzheimer’s who suddenly will do whatever is asked of them by complete strangers; this willingness to do what a polite person asks can prove problematic when the Alzheimer’s patient is put in contact with an identity thief over the phone.
My final suggestion is to ask any nursing home or assisted living facility that you are considering for a loved one whether they do background screenings on their employees. Avoid any that don’t do this type of screening.
Unfortunately, as the economic situation gets tighter, some people will look toward identity theft as a way to ease the financial pain. And what would be a better target than a person who has Alzheimer’s (and thus, has limited memory)? Because of this, being vigilant in keeping track of the loved one’s financial documents, personal information and contacts with strangers (whether in person or over the phone) has become another critical part of a caregiver’s job description.