Ways to protect your identity from theft

Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in North America. Many people can be or already are victims of identity theft and may not even know it. Identity thieves will steal personal information and use it to get credit cards, loans, mortgages and state benefits. They may get hold of one’s Social Security Number and sell it to someone who doesn’t have such a number for illegal employment, to get a driving licence, even passport or tax records, all in their victims’ names. This type of crime is extremely lucrative and profitable. Fraudsters have developed a number of ways by which to gain confidential information. 

While everyone is at risk, there are numerous precautions that minimize the risk of having one’s identity stolen.

Proper disposal of confidential documents

If you wish to discard any bank and mortgage statements, tax records or other governmental correspondence, then it is highly recommended that you shred these documents before throwing them into a bin or recycling. Since identity thieves will most likely not break into your home, they will go for the next best thing – your garbage. There, among other things, are old bank statements, tax documents, insurance, governmental correspondence or other information revealing documents. Since the internet has gotten such a bad reputation, garbage bins remain the biggest source of personal information.

Shredding is something banks do regularly as do other financial institutions. In a bank setting, a bin for confidential information is different to that of ”other paper”, which is different to that of other rubbish. At the end of the day, the confidential bin is taken off to be shredded and then recycled. 

Regardless of the shredding however, bin divers are still not discouraged, and they will still lurk around a bank’s trash looking for information. They do this by looking into the non-confidential bins with hope that someone had made a mistake and left a revealing document that has not been shredded. Do not be mistaken in thinking that they will not do this around your home – they do and they will, so it is better to be safe than sorry.

If you have purchased a computer, laptop, new sound system or a TV, then dismantle the box it came in before you throw it outside. Large boxes indicating what came in them may identify you as either a high earner or someone with a healthy bank account. That may encourage shifting through your mail or thrown away paperwork for personal information.

Other than bank and financial institution papers, any documents that show your full name, date of birth or an account number for any kind of institution should be shredded. The robbers may not gather all the information from a single document, but they may be able to pull together vital information from number of thrown away documents.

Staying safe on the internet

Due to the higher public awareness, phishing scams are getting increasingly more sophisticated. Beware of the internet scams that mimic banks, tax offices or other financial institutions. 

The most important thing to highlight is that banks, financial institutions and tax offices will never, ever ask for your information via e-mail. If there is ever a problem they need resolving, then you will get a message to call them back or you will be sent a letter. E-mail is not a medium for confidential communication between yourself and an institution, so do not follow links or reply to such e-mails. It will simply never happen that the bank will ask you to communicate via e-mails. Even those with personal business managers or financial advisers will not be asked to share any information via e-mail under any circumstances.

Regardless of how convincing the e-mail may look, do not follow links nor fill out any information it is asking for. If in any doubt, the best plan of action is to contact the bank or an institution directly and confirm all is in order.
While it might be tempting to reply to the poorly constructed phishing e-mails letting the person know you will not be deceived, it is advisable that this not be done. Replying to the e-mail will confirm your existence on that e-mail address, thus it is better if the e-mails are deleted. 

When shopping online, buy from the reputable sellers and always check if the site is secure. There should be a padlock in the address bar as well as a security logo somewhere on the website. The address should begin https indicating the site is secure.

Where possible, use PayPal, as PayPal does not give out your credit card information to the third party. It may be a good alternative if you’re buying from a website for the first time.

Keeping personal information safe

Aside from disposing of confidential information correctly and taking care on the internet, keeping the information safe in every day life is just as vital. 

Be extremely careful where your use your credit/debit card and pay close attention to who is looking over your shoulder when inputting your personal identification number into the cash machine. While it might be convenient to pay bills over the phone using your credit/debit card, do not read the card numbers out loud anywhere in public. 

If you’re unfortunate to lose your wallet or have it stolen, immediately cancel all your credit and debit cards. Even if you find your things at a later date or if they’re returned to you, make sure the old cards are cancelled. It doesn’t take very long for the fraudsters to make their move in using your finances, so cancel everything immediately.

Information such as your mother’s maiden name, date of birth and full address are sometimes part of the security questions used to identify you. Be careful to whom you disclose this information.

Just as with internet, pay close attention to who’s contacting you and what they are asking. Any unsolicited phone calls claiming to be on behalf of your bank and asking for personal details such as the account number or the full password should be rejected. Banks will not approach their customers in this manner. If in any doubt, ask the caller for the main switchboard number and call them back to check. Alternatively, terminate the call and call the bank yourself. There are many instances where the criminals would call their potential victims raising an alarm of a fraud or claiming the account is in the debt recovery, prompting panic, which causes people to comply easily. Stay composed, should the bank suspect any fraud, they will immediately put a stop on your account and deal with it appropriately. They don’t need to call you asking for personal information over the phone. If something is the matter, then banks will want to see you in person or verify data over the phone.

Last but not least, take utmost care of your Social Security Number, your Social Security Number is you. It identifies you to the tax office, to your employers and to your government. Keep it safe and well protected for with this, an identity thief can get themselves employed as you, open bank accounts as you and be you. Even when filling in a job application, do not put your Social Security Number until the position has been confirmed. It is best practice not to carry around your SSN or Social Security card in your wallet.

Legitimate account take over fraud

As previously highlighted, the identity thieves might use your information to open bank accounts in your name or take out credit, however that might not be the only thing that can happen. Legitimate account take over fraud is the type of fraud where the fraudsters will use the acquired information, not to open a new account or get brand new credit, but take over the legitimate accounts and plunder them. The first step to this is an address change request, where the fraudsters, having acquired enough of personal information, will firstly change the address to which the correspondence goes, then re-request the PINs (personal identification numbers) and new cards. With this in place, the criminal can start using a legitimate account and make unauthorised transactions.

Monitoring your finances

The last and very important action to be taken is monitoring your bank accounts, credit cards and the like. If there is anything out of the ordinary, then you must alert the fraud teams. Even if it turns out to be nothing, it is always better to be safe than sorry. Those people are there to prevent and take leads on possible fraudsters, so monitor and contact if you fear the worse.

Request your credit score. It’s important to mention that there are two types of credit score request – soft inquiry and hard inquiry. It is only a hard inquiry, made by potential lenders that lowers your credit score. Soft inquiries made for yourself do not lower the credit score, so do engage in monitoring it. If your credit score has suddenly dropped significantly, then it is possible that someone has taken credit in your name and is in arrears.

The best protection against fraud is your own vigilance. Fraudsters are persistent and will keep using the same methods for gathering information for as long as those methods yield any kind of results. Half of the battle against fraud is protecting personal information properly and efficiently. 

Be vigilant, keep your information and your identity safe.