Preventing Identity Theft

You’re thinking: sure, just another piece on identity theft. Well, yes – and no. First, it’s important to understand what identity theft is and why you should protect against it. Then, you’ll get words of advice on how to do just so. This article does not intend to cover every possible detail about identity protection, instead it will address a couple less commonly debated angles.

There is a lot of overwhelming and downright frightening information nowadays about stolen identity. Reports from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse mention 8 million victims for 2006 alone. What exactly does this mean? In a broad definition, identity theft ranges from using stolen credit cards to full application fraud, where the thief uses the victim’s social security number and other personal information to open accounts, take loans and so on.

The solution seems easy: just protect your personal information and everything will be okay. This approach is not quite correct. While it is true that being cautious about sharing your social security number helps, most people don’t realize two other things: first, that your information is only as safe as the weakest link in the network where it travels, and second, that your online self can be discovered by a large number of unfriendly individuals.

The idea of the weakest link is similar to the TV show with the same name. Yes, you are doing everything you should do about protecting your personal information, but you need to share it with your bank, your credit card company, your employer and so on. You don’t have much of a choice in trusting these entities and this article is not suggesting the opposite either; yet you should be aware that mistakes can happen, some more serious than others, but in the end you need to be informed in the case that any of your information has been compromised.

As far as online activities are concerned, there are many little pieces that can re-create the YOU puzzle. It requires a little more work for a thief to access all the public places where you exist (a phone directory, Facebook, Twitter, an online resume, job profile and others), but it is free and does not require breaking the law, as some of the offline practices do in gathering information. Once the identity thief moves to actually taking over your identity, of course it becomes a crime – but he will be harder to catch because he now has more information available about your person and knows you better. Thus, if you are involved in a number of social networks and other online venues, think twice before you reveal some key pieces of information.

Another important protection measure is to make sure you keep some piece of uniquely identifying information only for you. If you’ve relocated from another region, it is possible that not even your close friends know the exact name of the city of your birth. Or your mother’s maiden name, for instance. Keep it that way. Realistically, this type of information is not going to be enough to prove your identity in case of id theft, but presented on the right document (a birth record) it would definitely take you a long way toward showing that you are who you say you are, and that the thief is not you.

Last but not least, you should consider using one of the services available to track and monitor your credit report. One of these is ProtectMyID, where in exchange for a small monthly fee your credit is monitored and you receive e-mail alerts when a new account is opened in your name or a new application for credit is registered. Also, any changes to the address are also reported, which is usually how identity thefts begin: the victim’s address is changed so that the thief can then receive the mail regarding the new accounts without your knowledge. ProtectMyID will alert about such changes, of which some may be legit – for instance, you really are moving so the address change is accurate. However, just in case that is not true, monitoring your credit can help figuring out early that there is a threat to your identity, and further steps can then be then taken before things go too far.

As a conclusion, it is important to be aware of potential information leaks from yourself or from people or entities around you. Keeping your social security number safe is not, by itself, a guarantee that nothing bad will ever happen. Having a service like ProtectMyID monitor your credit every day is a good measure towards ensuring that you will at least find out very soon and be able to take quick action should somebody pose a threat to your identity.