Identity theft is a very serious threat to you, your estate, and your finances. Victims of identity theft could lose social security benefits to someone else, have medical benefits paid for the wrong person, have their bank accounts emptied, and even have credit cards issued in their name to have even more debt. How does this happen?
There are many methods that may be used to hijack someone’s identity. Going through trash, phoning a target and getting information from a seemingly innocent conversation, and (the most popular today) the home computer are all great entry points.
One man’s trash is another’s opportunity for theft. Let’s take a look at that stack of trashed solicitation letters. The credit card applications, refinance mailings, insurance notices; these junk mailings are potential gold mines to an enterprising dumpster diver. We should not forget the obvious items either. Items such as insurance claim information, credit card and utility bills, even those office memos from work that are addressed to you are all worth the money and time invested in buying and using a shredder before remitting the paper to a recycle bin.
Telemarketers are not always what they appear to be either. You may have one a free cruise, but they need to know where you live and a social security number to report the value of it to the IRS. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, what contest did you enter? Where are they based? What physical proof do you have other than the faith of what they are selling you? Always be on the alert with solicitation calls. Never purchase anything from a call that was not initiated by you.
Also, under NO circumstances, should you give your social security or bank information to a phone solicitor. If they claim to be calling from your bank or credit card company, they can pull up your information on the screen. Why would they need to ask you for it? A small detail like the last four digits of your home phone or asking for your zip code for security purposes should be fine. Asking for your social security or credit card numbers is not.
This leaves us with the computer. Man’s new best friend and most indispensable appliance. A computer is only as good as the security checks that are in place. Follow these rules and your home system will be virtually immune to the ravages of the internet and visitors in your home.
1) The administrator account should only be available to the most knowledgeable adult in the home. If this is the kids’ computer, you really do not want to keep financial data on it. If this is your system, you do not want your son or daughter installing *anything* on it.
2) Keep the operating system updated regularly. Macs have the apple update utility in the dock by default. Keep it there and make regular use of it. Windows updates can be configured in the control panel for when you want to update. By default, this is set to 3a.m. every morning. It is best to have it download them and inform you when they are ready to install. A shield symbol with an exclamation mark will appear next the system clock when they are ready. All you need to do is to select the critical updates and let it install.
3) Stay current with your antivirus. I don’t know of a perfect antivirus package, but can assure you that all are only as good as the most recent updates of their definition files. Make sure that your updates are regular and that your subscription does not lapse. When you purchase Mcafee or Norton, you are usually buying the package with a one or two year subscription to receive updates. Only install one such software or you run the risk of an unstable system. If you are changing software vendors, completely uninstall the first package prior to installing the new one.
4) Firewalls are your friend. They prevent outside snooping to your local system. Most antivirus packages include a firewall now, but read the box or the specifications on the web site before purchasing or downloading. A good free one for windows is zonealarm (http://www.zonelabs.com)
5) Antispyware utilities are much like antivirus, except that you can safely install more than one. There are two great free ones: AdAware (http://www.lavasoftusa.com) and spybot search & destroy (http://www.safer-networking.org/). As long as the software stays up to date and regular scans are performed, spyware should be kept to a minimum. You should also read end user license agreements very carefully. Language such that allows the software to track your computer usage or share information with ‘partners’ should be removed immediately.
If you have reason to believe that your identity may have been compromised, you should go to the Federal Trade Commision’s website immediately at http://www.consumer.gov/idtheft/ and follow their guidelines in reporting the issue to the three credit unions. The site also covers more detailed practices on correcting the damage that has been done.