How to Prevent Identity Theft

One of the fastest growing crimes around the world is identity fraud.  This is where criminals steal an individual’s personal and financial details and use these to either steal money directly or to purchase goods and services and charge this to the person whose details they have stolen.  This is commonly known as identify theft. 

It is not difficult to understand why this crime is becoming more frequent.  The criminals are not bound by international borders; it is just as easy to steal in this manner from someone on the other side of the world as it is to steal from a neighbour.  Also, by using technology and the internet, the perpetrator can remain entirely anonymous and will never appear on a security camera.  In fact, often the victim is not aware that a crime has taken place for some time.

This type of fraud is very easy to commit, all that is needed is a few personal and security details, some of which are readily available on the internet or from public records.  If you are to avoid being a victim of this crime, you can take some steps to help prevent your information falling into the wrong hands.  Ten of the best ways to protect yourself from identity theft are described below.

1.         Protect your on-line information

The vast majority of people have an on-line presence on the internet.  This may be in the form of a social networking profile, banking activity, shopping or a variety of other forms.  What these have in common is the storage of your personal details, be that name and address or account and PIN security codes.  If a criminal is able to obtain those details, they can use them to steal from you.  It is then obvious why it is in your interest to rigorously protect these details.  One form of protection is to use passwords and good practice would be to

a)         password protect your information using a strong rather than weak password.  The features of a strong password are that it is of significant length (at least 8 characters), it includes letters, numbers and symbols but preferably not common words, eg ‘LP67kifu$’.  Weak passwords tend to be small in length and use easily guessed words or number strings, such as ‘password’, ‘backdoor’, ‘1234’ etc…;

b)         use different passwords for the different places you may store your information and/or for different accounts, to limit the damage that could be caused if someone obtains one of your passwords.  This can be hard to keep track of but you can keep an encrypted paper record of your passwords.  For example, if the password is listed on your paper as 2gh34YT£ it can be deciphered as hYT£g234 for real use (the number denotes the starting letter, then letters/symbols are listed in order as they appear with the numbers then following in the same order.)  This helps to protect you if your list is stolen;

c)         change your passwords regularly and at least monthly (and certainly if you suspect fraud immediately).  This limits the time that any stolen passwords are of use to a criminal;

d)         Always delete passwords from the computer screen when you have finished.  This is especially important if you have used a public or shared computer.

2.         Avoid phishing scams

Phishng is the practice of setting up what appear to be legitmate web-sites to which you are directed in order to have you input your security details.  Your details are captured and used to commit identify theft.  The sites can look very authentic.  Thankfully, if you keep your wits about you, you can protect yourself from these attempts.

The usual practice is to send you an alarming email urging you to follow a link contained in the email (for example, it may say your bank account has been compromised and you need to change your passwords immediately).  This link takes you to a false site where your details are captured.  A legitimate business will not ask you to do this.  The simple way to protect yourself is to NEVER click on a link in an email.  If you truly believe the email is legitimate, open your browser and type in the known address of the organisation (not the address in the email however authentic it looks) and access in your usual way.

3.         Destroy Paper Completely

If you are discarding printed material which contains sensitive information, such as bank statements, credit card statements or utility bills, ensure it is completely unreadable before putting in the bin.  The easiest way to do this is to use a shredder and they are very cheap to buy these days.  If you do not have access to a shredder, you could burn the documents.  Simply tearing the materials in half will not provide you protection from identity theft.

4.         Vigilance

A good practice is to thoroughly check all your bank, credit card and financial statements as soon as you receive them.  You should look for any withdrawals of cash or unknown purchases and notfiy your provider immediately if you find unexpected items appearing.  If your identity has been stolen, the best you can do is catch it quickly and prevent on-going thefts.

5.         Safe use of Credit/Debit cards

One form of identity theft is to clone a credit or debit card and then withdraw cash or make purchases with the cloned card.  Since you will still hold the original card, you will not even know this has happened until it is too late.  It makes good sense to be careful when using your cards and follow a few simple precautions.

a)         When using an ATM, always check the card insert slot for anything that looks odd.  There are devices which can be placed on top of the slot that will clone your card.  If you spot anything suspicious, don’t use the machine and inform the provider as soon as possible.

b)         Always cover the input pad when you are entering your PIN into a machine, be that in a shop or restaurant or when using an ATM.  You should shield your PIN from any prying eyes.

c)         Never let your card out of your sight when paying for goods or services.  Your card could be taken to a machine for cloning.  This is most likely to occur somewhere like a restaurant where handheld pads are used or where the waiter wishes to take your card to a static payment device away from your table.  If the payment cannot be taken at the table, then accompany the waiter to any static device.

6.         Caution supplying details

There are a number of occasions where you need to supply personal and financial information to third parties, for instance your credit card details when shopping on-line or booking flights or theatre tickets.  Anytime one of these situations arise, be cautious about to whom you provide your details.  Ensure that you are satisfied that the vendor is authentic and trusted.  Never provide this sensitive data to anyone or any organisation about whom you have the slightest concern.  It may be inconvenient, but it is far better than the ordeal you will need to go through if you become a victim of identity theft.

7.         Check your credit report

There are a number of agencies, such as Experian, from whom you can request sight of your credit report.  This report will contain details of the accounts taken out in your name as well as any debts that are registered against your name.  If someone has stolen your identity for the purpose of opening accounts and running up debts, you can identify this from your credit report and take action to limit your exposure to the crime. 

8.         Use protective software

There are a range of tools available to help prevent you becoming a victim of fraudsters.  Some of these are freely available and some require you pay a fee.  Compared to the cost of dealing with fraud, the fees are relatively small.  Two of the main types of useful software available are:

a)         virus checkers which can identify when a criminal has sent a virus to you.  Some of these viruses are able to search your computer, or provide access to your computer to the criminal, to find your personal and financial information which can then be used to steal your identity.

b)         site report software provides an indication of the relative safety of the sites that you visit on the internet.  Organisations review sites and maintain a database of those which were found to be safe to visit and those which exhibit concerning behaviour (such as phishing sites).  The software will alert you with pop up warnings before you visit a site known to be dodgy.

9.         Check your details

It is wise to regularly check the details held on you with your financial providers, such as banks or credit card companies, to ensure that they are holding your correct address.  Some identity thieves will lodge a change of address or email address with your financial providers so that you will not receive notices of growing debts or depleting account balance in order to prevent you noticing that you are a victim of identity theft for as long as possible. 

It is also a good idea to check your account balance when you use the ATM.  Most ATMs will allow you to print a mini statement detailing the last eight or so transactions and will also show the balance of your account.  You should query any transaction you do not recognise as soon as possible.

10.       Be aware

Finally, but most importantly, be wary whenever you make any transaction or provide personal details to anyone.  Always take a few seconds to confirm to yourself why you are providing the information and that you are satisfied that the person or organisation to whom you are supplying the information has a bone fide reason for requesting it.  If in any doubt, do not provide your details.  Often your own instincts will kick in and you will uncomfortable about what you are doing, even if you cannot articulate why.  Trust your instincts in these situations and double check when that happens.