Tips for preventing identity theft
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 Americans are victims of identity theft each year. Identity theft; using an individual’s personal information such as Social Security Numbers, bank account numbers, etc., for unlawful purposes is growing at an enormous rate. In addition to the large financial cost, it can result in ruined credit ratings and can put an extensive administrative burden on victims.
Protecting yourself from identity theft is a relatively simple process. Because the basis of identity theft is the misuse of your personal information, protecting that information is the first step, using the following simple procedures.
1. Protect your Social Security Number. Don’t carry your Social Security Card or papers with your SSN on them around in your wallet, or keep them with bank account or other financial papers. Your SSN should be secured in a separate location.
2. Watch that PIN. The PIN for your bank account is the key to your funds; treat it as a highly classified document. Do not write it down and leave it laying around. Be careful when withdrawing money from ATMs. “Shoulder surfers” lurking nearby might be trying to get a look at your PIN.
3. Don’t let mail pile up. Thieves can acquire your personal information from your credit card bills or bank statements, so pick up your mail (or have it picked up) regularly. This is also a sign that burglars look for to determine if a residence is occupied, so picking up mail regularly is doubly protective.
4. Check your bills carefully. Verify every charge, and don’t hesitate to contact the company if you notice anything strange. Many companies are willing to contact you if they notice out of the ordinary activity on your credit account.
5. Keep all receipts. Until the bill has been verified and paid, keep those receipts.
6. Completely destroy personal papers. Dumpster diving to retrieve letters and bills tossed in the trash is not just a pastime of tabloid journalists. Identity thieves can learn a lot about your personal financial affairs from your trash. Invest in a small shredder and pulverize all bank statements and other documents containing personal information.
7. Don’t give out personal information. Phishing is a technique identity thieves use to induce people to give out personal information. Official looking emails asking for PIN numbers, account numbers, or SSNs can trap the unwary. Don’t give out such information in emails or phone calls. If you receive such requests, either ignore them, or if they are from an institution with which you do business, contact them directly for confirmation. Few legitimate institutions will ask for identifying data via email or telephone.
8. Check your credit report. Identity theft activity, such as credit card purchases, unpaid bills, etc., will be reflected on your credit report. You are entitled to a free copy of your credit report annually from the three credit reporting bureaus, Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. The reports can be obtained directly from the bureaus, or from the central website. There are dozens of websites offering ‘free’ credit reports or your credit score, but many of them require subscriptions, enrollments, or other payments.
For more detailed information on protecting yourself from identity theft, the government has a website offering a wide range of information and suggestions. From this site you can download or order a consumer action handbook and learn what to do if you do become a victim.
While identity theft is a federal crime, prevention is an individual responsibility. You are your own first line of defense.