It’s your worst nightmare. After years of carefully managing your finances, some unscrupulous individual steals your identity and begins opening accounts, taking loans, and committing you to deal with the aftermath. All your hard work, gone in the time it took a thief to fill out some applications (most of which are now done online).
It’s your worst nightmare. After years of carefully managing your finances, some unscrupulous individual steals your identity and opens accounts and takes loans, committing you to deal with the aftermath. All your hard work, gone in the time it took a thief to fill out some applications (most of which are now done online). There are things that can be done if you’re identity has been stolen, but the damage can be extensive and take a lot of time and money to repair. It’s much easier to take steps to protect yourself from identity theft.
The U.S. Department of Justice defines identity theft and identity fraud as: “…terms used to refer to all types of crime in which someone wrongfully obtains and uses another person’s personal data in some way that involves fraud or deception, typically for economic gain.”
According to Consumer.gov, such information includes your:
- name and address
- credit card or bank account numbers
- Social Security number
- medical insurance account numbers
In short, everything about you that enables the thief to represent himself/herself as you. How do thieves get this usually well-guarded information?
The DOJ tells us of three of the most common ways a thief can steal your identity. One is called “shoulder surfing” and happens in public places. Typically, “shoulder surfing” occurs when you’re entering your credit card or telephone calling card number into a phone. Thieves also elevate eavesdropping to an art and steal credit card information as you give your it during a phone conversation.
Another means is via carelessly discarded applications for “pre-approved” credit cards. We all get them and usually consider them as junk mail. If you don’t run the applications through a paper shredder, or at least tear them up by hand, smart thieves can recover them and complete the application as though they were you. And, if others can easily access your mail when it’s delivered, thieves may simply pick up your mail before you do. They often make address changes to have your mail delivered to them at a different address.
The last method the DOJ explains is really a clever trick. If you receive “spam” email – typically from a source you didn’t contact – that promises some type of benefit once you provide identifying data, and you respond to it with that data, chances are great that you’ve just had your identity stolen. Forget whatever benefit was promised, you just handed the thieves everything they need.
If it’s so easy for these dishonest scammers to get what they want, is there really anything we can do to stop them? The answer, according to USA.gov is a resounding “Yes!”
What follows are suggestions to stop identity thieves in their tracks.
- Never carry your social security card in your wallet or write it on your checks. In fact, don’t give your social security number (SSN) to anyone, unless absolutely unavoidable.
- Never give out personal information, such as name, birthday, SSN or bank account numbers in response to unsolicited requests. That includes those you receive online, over the telephone or in the mail.
- Pick up your mail as soon as possible after it’s delivered. If you’re going away, have it held at the post office.
- Be aware of “shoulder surfers.” If you have to type passwords or PIN numbers in public, use your hand or body as a shield to keep others from seeing what you’re entering.
- Compare your receipts with any account statements, keeping an eye out for unauthorized transactions.
- Stop “dumpster divers” by shredding everything containing sensitive information. This includes statements, credit offers, receipts, and expired cards.
- Keep your personal information safely stored both at home and at work.
- Make sure you have firewalls and anti-virus software on your home computers and perform regular updates.
- Use complex passwords that are hard to guess and always change them if a data breach is reported for that business or account. Don’t use the same password for multiple accounts.
- Conduct an annual review of your credit report. The source in this link provides your report at no charge. If you think your accounts have been compromised, conduct the review more often. Yes, it will cost (after the one free report), but it won’t be as expensive as identity theft.
The last, and perhaps best, thing you can do is arm yourself with knowledge. Learn more about how identity thieves work and other things you can do to stop them from being successful. One great way of doing this comes from a U.K.-based firm, Comparitech. They’ve created a ten-question quiz to test whether you can outsmart an identity thief. I highly recommend taking it. I did, and I learned a few good tricks. Purdue University Global has published a great guide, “10 Tips to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft,” that is well worth reading.