Q: What is identity theft and how does it happen?

A: Identity theft occurs when someone obtains personal information about you and uses it as if it were his or her own.

With such information as your Social Security number, credit card numbers and bank account numbers, someone can open additional credit card accounts, withdraw from bank accounts or make purchases on accounts. This is all done with no intention of paying for the merchandise and services obtained.

Some thieves steal your purse or wallet and obtain the information from your cards. Others go through curbside trash to get credit card bills and other documents with vital information. Some find information on the Internet. Others go through mail you have left in your mailbox for the postal worker to collect.

No matter the method used, you can take steps to reduce your chance of being a victim.

Minimize what you carry in your purse or wallet. Never carry more credit cards than needed and leave your Social Security card at home. Consider carrying your Medicare cards only when you know you’ll be asked for them or carry a copy of them with your Social Security number removed. If you have an emergency, someone can always get them for you.

Don’t give out your Social Security number unless it is absolutely necessary. If it is requested, ask why. Your Social Security number is not necessary for check cashing or credit card purchases. If a clerk insists on needing it, ask to speak to a manager.

Junk mail is much more personal then you realize. It often carries vital information about you. Never toss it unopened. If it has pertinent information, it should be shredded or torn into small pieces before disposal.

Q: My parents are getting on in age and will eventually need my assistance. How do I start planning for this?

A: There are three areas that you should become knowledgeable about: living arrangements, medical coverage and estate planning.

Talk with your parents about their thoughts on future living arrangements when and if they become unable to care for themselves. If they want to remain in their home you must familiarize yourself with the community resources available to provide the support they will require. You should also research alternative living arrangements in case home is no longer an option.

You will have to know the type of medical coverage your parents have and what it covers.

You should obtain the name and telephone number of all of their physicians. Become aware of their illnesses, disabilities and especially medications.

Estate planning includes legal, financial and final needs issues. You should find out if your parents have an advance directive for health care, a will or trust and a general power of attorney for finances.

Know who has copies of these documents and where they are. If your parents have an attorney you should also have that person’s name and telephone number.

Discuss with your parents their income and assets. This information will be of utmost importance if you need to place them in a long-term care facility or apply for government assistance. You should also know if they have long-term care insurance.

Try to find out whether your parents have made funeral arrangements and possibly paid for them. If no plans have been made, encourage them to tell you what they want.

Discuss all issues with your parents while they still can make appropriate decisions and make their wishes known. If you have siblings, make them part of that discussion. If your siblings do not want to or cannot be part of the discussions, make sure they know what has transpired.


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