Consumers have little ability to stop or “prevent” identity theft, but each of us can take steps to decrease our risk. Identity theft is a serious problem affecting more people every day. That’s why learning how to protect against it is so important. Knowing how to protect yourself from identity theft makes your identity more secure.
The more people who know how to prevent identity theft, the less inclined others may be to commit the crime.
The following recommendations are made to protect against theft of your credit cards, driver’s license, Social Security card, and other important documents. The theft of a purse or wallet can lead to unauthorized credit card charges, application for lines of credit in your name, and identity theft. The latter can lead to problems which may haunt you for years after the occurrence, in the form of access to your personal information online, access to your Department of Motor Vehicles information, access to your Social Security accounts, and other potentially devastating consequences.
Protecting yourself from identity theft starts with managing your personal information carefully and sensibly.
First, never give out your Social Security Number (SSN) unnecessarily. You should know the person to whom you give your SSN, and the purpose for which it will be used. The same holds true for all personal information, especially online or over the telephone when you don’t know the identity of the person or institution requesting the information. Never print your SSN on your checks; you can always write it on a check if it is required.
Install firewalls and virus-detection software on your home computer. Keep anti-virus and spyware software updated at all times.
Password-protect your computer and personal information, as well as your financial accounts. Don’t use the same password for all purposes. Changing passwords frequently is another way to protect yourself. Make sure to create STRONG passwords; it is generally recommended that the password be more than eight characters long (one source recommends 14 characters), and it should contain upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols. Consider using spaces as one or more of the characters in your password. Using non-dictionary words also helps.
The next time you order checks, pick them up at the bank instead of having them sent to your home. This makes it harder for your checks to be stolen, altered and cashed by identity thieves. Also, consider having only your initials (instead of first name) and last name put on them. That way, if someone takes your check book they will not know if you sign your checks with just your initials or your first name, but your bank will know how you sign your checks.
When you are writing checks to make a payment on your credit card accounts, DO NOT put the complete account number on the subject line. Instead, just use the last four numbers of the account. The credit card company knows the rest of the number. Anyone else who might be handling your check as it passes through all the check processing channels, however, won’t have access to it.
Put your work phone number on your checks instead of your home phone number. If you have a P.O. Box, use that instead of your home address.
Follow your credit card billing cycles closely. Identity thieves can start by changing your billing address. Making sure you receive your credit card bill every month is an easy way to prevent identity theft. If you don’t receive a bill when you expect to, call the sender immediately.
We suggest that you make a photocopy of the contents of your purse or wallet, copying both sides of each license, credit card, etc., so that you will know what you had in your wallet and all of the account numbers and telephone numbers to call if your purse or wallet is stolen. You should make such copies on a regular basis, at least annually, so that the information is always current.
Phishing is a growing internet scam technique that employs an on-line method of identity theft. An attacker who wants to “phish” potential victims uses a spoofed e-mail address and/or website to capture personal identifiable information or credentials, which the attacker can then use for fraudulent purposes. Typically, the attack begins with an e-mail that requests a response or directs you to a website.
Here are some tips that you can follow to avoid becoming an ID theft victim:
- Be suspicious of any e-mail that requests personal information such as a user ID, password, PIN, e-mail address, Social Security Number, etc. Most legitimate businesses never ask you to verify your credentials via e-mail or online.
- Check the website address (URL) before entering personal information onto a site. Is it from a trusted company and does it look right? Legitimate businesses’ products are on secure sites with the URL starting with “https,” with the “s” distinguishing the site as secure. Verify that the site you are on is a secure site as an added precaution.
- If you are suspicious about an e-mail, don’t click on any links or respond to the e-mail.
Some other suggestions for preventing identity theft (from www.usa.gov):
- Protect your PIN. Never write a PIN for a credit/debit card or on a slip of paper kept in your wallet.
- Watch out for “shoulder surfers.” Use your free hand to shield the keypad when using pay phones and ATMs.
- Collect mail promptly. Ask the post office to put your mail on hold when you are away from home for more than a day or two.
- Keep your receipts. Ask for carbons and incorrect charge slips as well. Promptly compare receipts with account statements. Watch for unauthorized transactions.
- Tear up or shred unwanted receipts, credit offers, account statements, expired cards, etc., to prevent dumpster divers getting your personal information.
- Store personal information in a safe place at home and at work. Don’t leave it lying around.
- Don’t respond to unsolicited requests for personal information in the mail, over the phone or online.
- Check your credit report once a year. Check it more frequently if you suspect someone has gotten access to your account information.
If your purse or wallet is stolen, or if you think that you have become a victim of identity theft, immediately notify all credit card companies from which you have a credit card. In order to accomplish this, you must have the toll-free numbers for each company. File a police report as soon as possible in the jurisdiction where the theft took place, proving that you were diligent in pursuing your loss. Filing a police report is also the first step toward an investigation.
At the earliest opportunity, call the three national credit reporting organizations to place a fraud alert on your name and Social Security number. The alert means that any company that checks your credit knows that your information was stolen and that they must contact you by telephone to authorize new credit. The three national credit reporting services and their telephone numbers are:
- Equifax: (800)525-6285
- Experian (formerly TRW): (888)397-3742
- Trans Union: (800)680-7289
You should also call the Social Security Administration. The Social Security Administration fraud line is (800)269-0271.
Most people fail to anticipate what could become a major catastrophe. Pass this information along to family and friends. In a perfect world, these precautions will never have been necessary. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world.