Identity Theft: How to Protect Yourself
Author: Chemain Evans
Identity theft encompasses a wide range of deception, from a stolen credit card used to charge purchases to an existing account, to stolen information used to impersonate the victim, open new accounts (even ones for utilities), and rack up thousands of dollars in debt.
With over 500,000 new cases each year (and some say upwards of 900,000), identity theft is one of the fasting growing crimes in America. In many states it isn't even illegal, or hardly punishable if it is. Often the perpetrator goes uncaught and unpunished. Worse still is that it takes on average 12 months for the victim to realize he is a victim and by then it may nearly impossible to climb back out of the black hole of damaged credit, costing hundreds of hours and hundreds of dollars to try to fix it.
Sadly, since much of this goes unpunished, companies often write off the bad debt and then charge you and me higher interest rates and fees to cover their losses. So we all are indirect victims of identity theft. The more vigilant we become, the better off we will all be.
What can you do to protect yourself from becoming a victim of identity theft? There is no absolute guarantee, but the more precautions you put in place, the harder it will be for someone to steal your information and use it illegally. What follow below are some ideas that you can use to start protecting yourself now.
1. Check your credit reports annually.
This is your first and foremost line of defense. Contact the three major credit reporting agencies (www.equifax.com, www.experian.com, www.transunion.com) every year to obtain a copy of your credit report. Some websites also offer a 3-in-1 report. Go through them carefully, looking for any inaccuracies. Report any problems immediately. Consider asking them to require your permission to issue new credit lines.
2. Protect your Social Security number.
Many companies ask for your Social Security number (SSN) to use for recordkeeping. Ask if you can substitute a different number. This is especially true of driver's licenses and health insurance cards. Never give out your SSN to anyone over the phone or internet if you did not initiate the contact. Don't carry your Social Security card with you and don't have your SSN preprinted on your checks (or your phone number either).
3. Protect passwords and PINs.
Always protect your passwords and PINs from being seen by others, especially at ATM's. Don't write them down and carry them with you. Do not store passwords on your computer's hard drive. If you need to write them down, store them somewhere else. Passwords should be hard to discover (bad choices: mother's maiden name, birthdates, last 4 digits of SSN or phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers). When possible use a mix of upper- and lower-case letters, numbers, and symbols.
4. Know your billing cycles.
Know when to expect your bills. If any of them is late, call the company or agency and check on its status. A late/missing bill could mean that someone has stolen your information and changed the billing address, leaving you unaware of the charges that may be racking up.
5. Shred everything with your information on it.
All those credit card applications you receive in the mail and throw away are an open invitation for someone to open an account in your name. Invest in a good cross-cut shredder and shred all documents with any financial information on them, including credit card receipts. Then put the remnants in the yuckiest, ickiest trash you've got to discourage dumpster-divers from stealing them and putting them back together.
6. Make the post office your ally.
Deposit outgoing mail at your local post office or in a locked post office drop box. Thieves actually patrol neighborhoods, stealing mail out of mailboxes. A little acid wash, and voila!, they change the amount and the person being paid. Don't give them the chance! If you're going out of town, have the post office put a hold on your mail. Consider getting a post office box or ask your post office about getting a key-operated community mailbox for your neighborhood.
7. Technology doesn't beat everything.
Don't give out personal information over cellular/mobile/wireless phones, or cordless phones. (This includes telephone banking.) Their radio frequencies can be easily intercepted, overheard, and hacked.
Surfing the internet puts you at risk from hackers breaking into your system; consider purchasing a "firewall" program to protect your computer from outside access. When divulging personal information on the internet (for example, when making a purchase) always look for privacy policies and the little "lock" symbol that indicates your information is secure.
Don't use your email address for user IDs on websites; there are "robots" that specifically search for this on sites like eBay to try and trick you into divulging your personal information. You may receive an official-looking email asking you to "verify" or "update" your information. Remember that anyone who already has your information will not ask you to verify it. Always be suspicious of such tactics. The same goes for people who call you and claim to be somebody like a bill collector, government agent, utility worker, etc. If in doubt, call the company they appear to be representing.
If you use a laptop computer use a strong password (combination of upper/lower-case letters, numbers, symbols); don't use automatic login; always log off when finished; and don't store financial information on it unless absolutely necessary.
When disposing of your personal computer, deleting your personal information usually isn't enough. Use a "wipe" utility program to render files unrecoverable.
8. Be aware of the opportunities to steal your information.
Think of all the places that store your personal information, such as the offices of doctors, dentists, accountants, loan officers, health insurance, schools, courts, etc. Ask them how they protect your information. Request that they shred anything with personal information on it when disposing of it.
Keep your wallet or purse in a safe place at work; not all of your fellow coworkers are trustworthy. Be aware of the "Good Samaritan" scheme where your missing wallet is returned (after one of your several credit cards is removed; you have so many that you probably won't notice!). Only carry a minimum number of cards and identification with you.
9. If desired, subscribe to a credit monitoring service.
If you're really worried about identity theft, consider subscribing to a credit monitoring service. They will regularly notify you of your credit status and anything suspicious that might be going on.
10. Make a list and check it twice.
Make list of all your credit card numbers, banking account numbers, and driver's license number with their customer service numbers and keep them in a safe place. That way you'll have a starting place if something should happen to you.
Remember, the more vigilant we all are, the more protected we all are.
For more information regarding identity theft , see the federal government's website at www.consumer.gov/idtheft.
© Simple Joe, Inc.
Chemain Evans is a quality control specialist for Simple Joe, Inc., makers of the popular Simple Joe's Expense Tracker PC software. Expense Tracker is a quick and simple way to keep track of your expenses and stay within your budget. Expense Tracker (http://www.simplejoe.com/expensetracker/index2.htm) is ideal for tracking personal, business, home and club expenses.