Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in the US. What makes identity theft so disturbing is that you usually don't even know that you have been targeted until months later when the bills start rolling in. Before most identity theft cases are even discovered, the damage has already been done.
Identity theft encompasses a wide range of fraud and deception. This includes stolen credit cards that are used to charge purchases to your existing account, or stolen personal information that is used to impersonate you, open new charge accounts, and put you thousands of dollars in debt.
With over one-half million new cases each year, identity theft is indeed one of the fasting growing crimes in America. In many states identity theft isn't even illegal, or if it is, the punishment is very light.
Often the identity thief goes uncaught and unpunished. Even worse, it takes on average one year for the victim to find out about the problem, and by then it may extremely difficult to rectify all of the affects of the identity theft. It usually ends up costing many hours and hundreds of dollars to try to fix the problems.
Worse still, companies often simply write off the amounts owed and then charge you and me higher interest rates and fees to cover their losses. That makes all of us indirect victims of identity theft. The more vigilant we become at preventing identity theft, the better off we'll all be.
What can you do to prevent identity theft? There is no 100% guarantee, but the more precautions you take, the harder it will be for someone to steal your personal information and use it illegally.
Here are a few things that you can do to help ward off the possibility of identity theft:
Remember, the more vigilant we all are at preventing identity theft, the more protected we all are.
- Check your credit reports once a year. This is your first and best line of defense. Contact all three major credit reporting agencies (equifax.com, experian.com, and transunion.com) annually to obtain a copy of your credit report.
Some websites also offer a 3-in-1 credit report. Examine them carefully, looking for any inaccuracies or things that just don't look right. Report any problems to the credit bureaus right away. Also consider asking them to require your permission before issuing new credit lines.
- Guard your Social Security number. Many companies will ask for your SSN for record keeping or identity purposes. Ask if you can use a different number instead. Of course this applies to driver's licenses and health insurance cards especially.
Never provide your SSN to anyone over the internet or telephone if you didn't initiate the contact. Leave your Social Security card locked away and don't have your SSN preprinted on your checks.
- Safeguard all passwords and PINs. Don't let them be seen by others, especially at ATMs or grocery store checkouts. And don't write them down and keep them in your purse or wallet.
Don't store any passwords on your computer's hard disk. If you need to keep reminder copies, store them elsewhere.
Passwords should be hard to figure out. Don't use your mother's maiden name, birth dates, or the last four digits of your SSN or telephone number. If allowed by the software, use a mixture of upper-case and lower-case letters, numbers, and symbols.
- Know your billing cycles. Know when to expect your bills to come in the mail. If you notice that one is late, call the company and check on its status.
A late or missing statement could mean that someone has stolen your personal information and changed the billing address, leaving you unaware of any charges that may be accruing.
- Shred all unneeded documents with your personal information on them. Remember all those unsolicited credit card applications that you receive in the mail? Simply throwing them away is an open invitation for an identity thief to open an account in your name.
Invest in a high quality shredder and shred all financial documents before throwing them away, including your credit card receipts and old statements. Then discard the remnants in the yuckiest, nastiest garbage you've got to discourage thieves from stealing them and putting them back together.
- Deposit outgoing mail at your local post office or in a locked post office mail drop. Identity thieves routinely patrol residential neighborhoods, stealing mail right out of the mailboxes. Using a little acid wash, they change the amount due and the person being paid.
Don't give identity thieves a chance! If you're temporarily going out of town, ask the postmaster to hold your mail until you get back. Consider renting a post office box or inquire about getting a key-operated community mailbox cluster for your neighborhood.
- Never give out your personal information over a cellular or cordless phone (this includes telephone banking). The radio frequencies used by these devices are easily intercepted, overheard, or hacked.
When you surf the internet, you're at risk from hackers breaking into your PC. Consider installing a "firewall" program to protect your system (and your personal information) from unauthorized access.
When divulging your personal information over the internet (for example, when making an online purchase) always look for the site's privacy policies and the little "lock" symbol that indicates that you're using a secure connection.
Never use your email address as your user ID on websites. There are underhanded programs that search for email addresses on large websites and try to trick you into giving them your personal information. They might send you an official-looking email asking you to "verify" or "update" your account information.
Always remember that any company who already has your personal information won't ask you to verify it. Always be very suspicious of these types of tactics.
The same goes for people who call you on the telephone and claim to be a bill collector, government employee, or utility worker. If you have doubts, call the company they claim to be representing.
If you use a notebook PC, use a strong password combination as described above. Never use automatic login functions and always log off when you're done. Don't store financial information on your computer unless it's absolutely necessary.
When getting rid of your old computer, simply "deleting" your personal information usually isn't enough. An identity thief can use special software to recover deleted information. Instead, use a "wipe" utility program to render the files unrecoverable.
- Be aware of any opportunities to steal your information. Just think of all the places that have your personal information, such as doctors offices, accountants, loan officers, insurance companies, schools, courts, etc. Ask them how they protect personal information from thieves. Ask them to shred any documents with your personal information on them before disposal.
Lock your wallet or purse away in a safe place while you're at work. One or more of your coworkers may not very trustworthy.
Be aware of the "Good Samaritan" scheme where your missing purse is returned to you after one of your credit cards has been removed ( you may have so many that you won't notice one missing). Carry only the minimum number of cards that you actually need as well as limited identification.
- If you're really worried about identity theft, then consider subscribing to a credit monitoring service. They will regularly notify you of your credit status and let you know if anything suspicious is going on.
- Make a list of all your credit card numbers, banking account numbers, and driver's license number, along with their customer service telephone numbers. Keep this list in a safe and secure place. That way, you'll have all the information you need in a hurry should something happen to you.
Chemain Evans is a quality control specialist for Simple Joe, Inc.
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