It’s probably something you’d rather not think about, but identity theft affects more than 10 million Americans every year and is growing rapidly. If you haven’t been a victim, you probably know someone who has. Thefts range from an unauthorized charge on your credit card to a complete loss of your identity.
Many thieves have financial motives like taking out a loan, opening bank or credit card accounts, or using your account information to create counterfeit checks or cloned ATM cards to drain your accounts. They may use your information to get government benefits like Social Security payments.
Other thieves use your information to get a driver’s license, rent an apartment, open cell phone or utility accounts, or get a job using your social security number. Perhaps the scariest scenario of all: someone gets arrested and gives the police your information. When they don’t show up for court, the arrest warrant is issued in your name.
The good news is there are things you can do to protect yourself:
1. SHRED everything with sensitive information. (Anything you wouldn’t hand to a total stranger). Ask your accountant how many years of tax returns to keep, and shred the oldest year’s return and related records each time a new one is filed. Shred old statements and credit card offers. Don’t leave receipts at ATMs or gas pumps.
2. SHOPPING ONLINE is safe as long as you are on a secure website. The internet address should start with “https” and have a padlock icon in the lower right hand corner.
3. COMPUTER SECURITY: Use anti-malware/spyware and anti-virus programs and keep them up to date. This will prevent hackers and malicious software programs from gathering data unbeknownst to you.
4. TELEPHONE SCAMS: Never give out information to someone who calls you claiming to be from your credit card company, bank, etc. If they are legitimate they already have that information. Call the company yourself using a phone number from the back of your credit card or bank statement.
5. In PHISHING SCAMS a thief sends a legitimate-looking email from a company you have an account with and asks you to reply with information or click on a link. Instead, contact the company directly through the website or phone number you would usually use. Watch which website you go to: there are scammers who set up websites that look legitimate but aren’t. (ie Visa.biz or BankatAmerica.com)
6. USE A SAFE for all your important documents including your social security card. Keep your birth certificate, passport and other identifying documents in a bolted-down safe at home and use the hotel safe when you’re travelling. Losing any of these documents makes it extremely easy for someone to steal your identity.
7. CREDIT FILES can be protected by placing a security freeze on your credit reports. When a freeze is set at all three credit bureaus, a thief cannot open a new account because the potential creditor will not be able to check the credit file. When you need to apply for credit, you can lift the freeze temporarily. See: www.equifax.com, www.experian.com, and www.transunion.com.
8. Order a free CREDIT REPORT through www.AnnualCreditReport.com from one of the three agencies every four months. You are entitled to one free copy a year from each agency so you can rotate your requests. Watch activity and check for inaccuracies. Also, be sure to close credit accounts you don’t want; don’t just cut the cards up.
9. BE AWARE of who’s around when you are at an ATM, on the phone, or online in public. Someone may be eavesdropping. Hackers can steal personal information from nearby laptops and smartphones. Set a strong password (a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols) on these devices that automatically locks after a certain period of inactivity.
10. MAIL envelopes with any sensitive information from a Post Office mailbox or secure mail slot, not your home mailbox where mail could be stolen. Eliminate credit solicitations by ‘opting out’ with companies you do business with and sign up for the Do Not Mail (www.directmail.com) and Do Not Call registries (www.donotcall.gov).
This is one situation where Ben Franklin’s old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is certainly good advice.