It’s happened to far too many individuals. You’re enjoying dinner when the phone rings with a collection agency on the other end, demanding payment for overdue charges on an account you never knew you had. Maybe a statement shows up in the mail with purchases you never made on a credit card you haven’t used in over a year. Whatever the situation, the reality is that we’re all potential victims of identity theft, and it’s critically important to take steps to protect your personal information.
Generally speaking, identity theft occurs when someone uses your personally identifying information, like your name, Social Security number, or credit card number, without your permission, to commit fraud or other crimes. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year.1 While some victims of identity theft are able to quickly resolve their issues, others are forced to spend thousands in legal fees and countless hours in an effort to repair their good name and credit record. Job opportunities, loans for housing, automobiles or education – all may be unavailable simply because unprotected information was stolen and abused.
So what can be done to help protect yourself? First, CLICK HERE to watch a short video from the Federal Trade Commission on how you can deter, detect and defend against ID theft. Then, take a look at these practical steps you can take to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft.
TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS…UNLESS YOU’RE THE TRUSTING TYPE.
There are a million schemes running everyday to catch the unsuspecting consumer. From free trips to the Bahamas to new laptop computers to mandatory “information updates” to your credit accounts, ID thieves employ every trick imaginable. If you’re contacted by phone or email requesting information, do not divulge or confirm any information. Remember, even in today’s “digital age,” there is still nothing that has to be done over the internet or by phone that can’t be done in person or by mail. Be cautious of anyone telling you otherwise. Even if you are the one who initiated contact with a company online, never release personal information without knowing whether or not the company is reputable.
GUARD YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER AT ALL COSTS.
Only provide your Social Security number when required by law. Never have it printed on your checks (as was custom for quite some time), and review your annual Social Security statement for major discrepancies.
SHRED, SHRED, SHRED.
Every document containing any personal information whatsoever should be shredded before being discarded. This includes everything from credit card and bank account statements to new credit card offers, insurance policy statements, voided checks and any personal correspondence containing information you wouldn’t want shared. Home office shredders can be purchased at any office supply store for roughly $35 – a wise investment to help you protect yourself from thieves.
MIND YOUR MAIL.
As simple as this seems, it’s one of the most important steps you can take. Identity thieves have been known to steal personal information straight from your mailbox, so make sure your daily mail is promptly removed, and whenever possible, deposit any outgoing mail at the post office as opposed to leaving it in your mailbox unattended. Whenever you’ll be away from home for more than a day, ask a trusted neighbor or relative to retrieve your mail or ask the post office to hold it until you return.
DON’T USE THE OBVIOUS.
Whenever you are creating personal identification numbers (PINs) or passwords for various accounts, resist the urge to use easily remembered numbers such as your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security number, your street number or any other information which could easily be uncovered by thieves. Instead, use create more abstract PINs, and if you must write them down (rather than committing them to memory), be sure those “cheat sheets” are well hidden in a lock box or other secured location.
CARRY A BARE MINIMUM.
Despite the urge to keep everything “handy,” do not carry your Social Security card, all credit cards and your passport in your purse or wallet unless absolutely necessary. 99% of the time, you should only need your driver’s license, an insurance card and your primary credit card on your person at any given time. As a precautionary measure, make copies of all credit cards, and record all account numbers, keeping this information in a secure location such as a lock box, along with the telephone numbers for the fraud departments for each institution so you can quickly notify them if an issue arises.
INSTALL A LITTLE PROTECTION.
A firewall is a protective device which can be installed on your computer to help prevent identity thieves from obtaining personal identifying information and financial data from your hard drive. Virtually any computer retailer can assist with the installation and maintenance of your firewall, and they can also assist in “wiping” your computer clean before disposing of an old one. This is very important as you don’t want to rely solely on your own deleting abilities to remove any sensitive information from your device.
CHECK YOUR CREDIT REPORT.
On an annual basis, it’s wise to review your credit report to check for errors and fraudulent use of your accounts. You can now get a free copy each year of your credit report by visiting www.annualcreditreport.com or calling (877) 322-8228.
Have you or someone you know already been a victim of identity theft? CLICK HERE for a free copy of “Take Charge: Fighting Back Against Identity Theft.” This 52-page guide from the Federal Trade Commission gives you the immediate steps you should take to file a report as well as the follow-up steps you can take to help resolve any resulting issues.
While there may be no absolutely “fool-proof” way to avoid ID theft, there are concrete ways to greatly reduce your risk. Take action now, and if you’d like more information on this topic, simply contact our office today!