Identity theft isn’t just on the rise anymore- it is soaring. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) an estimated 10 million people fall victim to identity theft each year in the United States alone, and the U.S. Department of Justice Statistics states that identity theft is now surpassing drug trafficking to become the number one crime in the nation. So chances are if you haven’t already been a victim of identity theft, someone you know has. It is a crime that carries no bias or profile. It targets all nationalities, the young and old, living and deceased, male and female, and private citizens and business communities alike, leaving in its wake damages to the tune of tens of billions of dollars annually, ruined credit, and emotionally spent lives. This is sobering information, but there are things that you can do to protect your identity and reduce your chance of becoming a statistic.
1. Do Not Keep Your Social Security Card in Your Wallet. In fact, don’t carry anything that may have your SS# on it, like an insurance card, for example. Your SS card should be kept in a secure place with all of your other official documents, such as birth certificates and immunization records. If your wallet or purse gets stolen, and your SS card is in there, the criminal will have immediate access you your whole financial world.
2. Photocopy the Contents of Your Wallet. It is quite difficult to remember what was in your wallet when it isn’t in front of you anymore. Make sure you have a photocopy of your driver’s license, credit cards, one personal check (so you have your account number and routing information), and any other personal identification such as passport or military I.D. so you can verify to authorities who you are and exactly what was taken. Keep these photocopies with your other official documents, as stated above, along with the contact numbers for your credit cards so you can cancel them immediately if stolen. When travelling abroad, copies of your identification and the contact numbers to the credit cards should be taken in case theft occurs there.
3. Be Selective With Your Personal Information On Checks. Since you shouldn’t carry your SS card with you, you also shouldn’t have it printed on your personal checks. Think about how many perfect strangers handle those checks daily. Also, instead of printing your full name on your checks, put the first initial of your first name along with your last name on them (such as: L. Burns). Any thief who steals your checks will not know if you signed your signature card with your full name or with only an initial. It is a great deterrent.
4. Do Not Write Full Account Numbers On The Memo Lines of Checks. We all know it is a good idea to put our account numbers on our payment checks to aide companies in crediting the right accounts, but you only need to put the last four numbers of your account (i.e.: xxx3242). Creditors can match your account with that, but thieves can’t.
5. Require a Photo ID. The next time your new credit card comes in the mail, instead of signing the back, write: Please check photo ID. This requires that a checkout clerk refer to a driver’s license for verification of the signature. This will add one more layer of protection to your credit cards. Just don’t forget your license at home!
6. Review All Statements Each Month. Check to make sure you recognize the merchants, where purchases occurred, and what was purchased before you pay your bills. If something you don’t recognize is there, call your credit card company immediately. If you use a debit card, you should also review your account online weekly to ensure the same. Debit cards do not carry the same dispute claim feature as credit cards so closer monitoring is required. Remember, some merchants do not require the access code on the debit card so you cannot rely solely on the password to protect you.
7. Monitor Your Credit Every 4-6 Months. You are entitled by law to a free credit report every 12 months, which will show you your credit standing with each line of credit you have. By going to www.AnnualCreditReport.com you can obtain this report free of service, although getting your scores will cost extra. To monitor your credit every 4-6 months start off by only requesting from one of the three bureaus, then in 4 months request from another bureau, then in another four months request from the last bureau. All bureaus have basically the same information, give or take a few lines of credit, but this will allow you to keep a closer eye on identity theft and do it for free.
8. Destroy All Financial Records You Do Not Wish To Keep. Many identity thefts begin by the criminal going through your trash. Tear up, or preferably shred, all private records, statements, and old credit cards that need discarding. This includes those endless credit card solicitations.
9. Secure Your Mail. Empty your mailbox quickly each day or get a PO Box so thieves can’t get to those credit card solicitations, or the card for that matter, when it comes in the mail. Also, do not put your outgoing mail in your box until morning. Criminals like to take the checks you have written for your bills and wash them. Check washing is a process using common household chemicals that erases the ink you used to write the check, allowing them to rewrite the checks in their names and for thousands of dollars more. Check washing constitutes an epidemic $815 million a year in the U.S. alone (National Check Fraud Center, www.ckfraud.org). If you will be out of town for a couple of days, either arrange for a neighbor to pick up your mail or put a hold on your mail at the post office.
10. Know Who You Are Dealing With. Whenever someone contacts you, do not give out private information over the phone. Simply find out what company they represent and the reason for the call. If the request seems legitimate, contact the company yourself and confirm what you were told before revealing the information. Be sure NOT to use a number or web address the soliciting person gives you over the phone. It could be part of the scam. A little bit of research in looking up the company contact information yourself could save you a lot of work in the end.
11. Never Give Out Personal Information Over the Internet. There are some pretty creative criminals who have the ability to create websites that look like the real thing. If you receive an email asking you for personal information, such as: password, maiden names, SS#’s, etc. then beware! This is called Phishing. Credit card companies, banks, Ebay, Paypal, or any other reputable company will never ask you for this information because they already have it. Do not respond to emails stating they need your personal information to update their systems. You can verify any email’s legitimacy by finding the contact information yourself and contacting the company personally.
12. Know How To Safely Utilize the Internet. The internet is a wonderful tool of convenience, but precautions do need to be made. 1). Change your passwords every couple of months; 2). Make sure you have a firewall, especially if you are wireless; 3). If you decide to buy something online make sure the website you are purchasing from is secure. They should have a branding on their site declaring what security software they are utilizing; and, 4). Only use a credit card or PayPal account to make a payment online. Giving anyone online access to your checking account through a debit card is risking disaster as debit cards do not have the same built in protections as credit cards do.
Nothing is fool-proof and despite your best efforts, something may go wrong. If something does go wrong, do the following:
a. Immediately file a report with the local police department where the theft occurred. Timing is vital as identity theft is now being used in committing other crimes and blaming innocent people for it. Get a copy of the police report. Credit card companies may need proof that ID theft has occurred.
b. Contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus. Tell them you are a victim of identity theft. Request a “fraud alert” be placed in your file with a statement that creditors call you before opening new accounts or changing current ones.
To Report Fraud:
Equifax: 1-800-525-6285; www.equifax.com; PO Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742; www.experian.com; PO Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013
TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289; www.transunion.com; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, PO Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92634
c. Contact the Social Security Administration fraud line: 1-800-269-0271
d. Keep copies of all correspondence involving the theft case.
For more information on identity theft and how to prevent it, go to: