Identity theft is very much in existence and is a federal offense. It is not something that paranoid people worry about, but is a crime that has affected more than 250,000 Americans in the year 2009 alone. Of these 17 per cent were subjected to credit card fraud, another 16 per cent to documents/benefit fraud, 15 per cent to phone/utilities fraud and 13 per cent to employment fraud. 10 per cent were subjected to bank fraud and 4 per cent to loan fraud. By statistics alone, you have excellent reason to be careful.
Identity theft offenders steal some one else’s identity to meet their own ends; either for economic purposes or for committing some other sort of crime. These criminals make use of your social security number, bank account or credit card number, telephone calling card number and similar identity data. You could end up losing your money, your credit record, financial reputation and even social reputation and standing as well if the thief does some crime in your name.
The thieves usually get information by methods such as stealing your wallet, mail or purse. They may also get personal information from you by posing as credit card companies or legitimate companies. They may even steal information from businesses or use bribes to get the information. Some identity theft victims have claimed that the theft was done by people known to them. This is why you need to be very careful.
Here are a few tips that can help you avoid identity theft:
1. Shred Documents Containing Financial And Personal Information after Use. The information in there can get into wrong hands and be used to steal your identity. Somebody doesn’t have to break into your house or steal your mail to get their hands on your personal and financial information. Instead, a seemingly harmless credit card statement or other document thrown in the trash can be picked up by anybody as they walk down your street on trash day. You don’t need anything fancy, but a 30 dollar shredder will at least help minimize the chances of somebody getting their hands on your important information and could prove to be priceless.
2. Protect Your Social Security Number, Passport And Bank Cards. This should go without saying, but don’t carry these around. Don’t write your social security number down and carry it in your wallet and don’t carry a bunch of credit or debit cards around if you don’t need them. Keep your Social Security card and passport locked up and only bring them out if you need them for something. And when you’re carrying credit or debit cards, only take the ones you plan on using with you. A lost or stolen purse or wallet can be a financial nightmare.
3. Do Not Give Out Personal Information To Anybody Over Phone, Mail Or Internet. Unless you have initiated the contact, in which case you can be sure of the person at the other end, don’t give people sensitive personal or financial information, not even to somebody claiming to be calling from your bank (your bank will already have the info). They may ask for a piece of identifying information, last four-digits of your Social Security number or part of an account number, but they shouldn’t be asking for every little detail. If someone calls you to offer credit cards or any other offer, ask them to provide you with a written application. If your bank or any other financial institution calls you and begins asking more information than you’re comfortable giving out simply hang up and call them directly and then ask about why they were calling to make sure it is a legitimate request.
4. Secure Yourself While Using Internet. Use firewalls, anti-spyware, anti-virus and other protection on your computer. Keep them updated and download new versions as they become available. Also, type in known web addresses and do not click on links in unsolicited mails. The number one method of identity theft is through the web. Thieves prey on people who click links in spam emails and who visit illegitimate websites. So, just be aware of what you’re doing online. If you’re using a wireless network at home be sure to secure it with the strongest method possible. I can’t tell you how many people are using completely unsecured networks just in my neighborhood alone. Take a moment to read through your router’s manual and set up the proper security. Otherwise smart thieves could be monitoring your internet connection.
5. Use A Password which is Difficult to Guess. Another obvious tip, but it needs repeating because of how common the problem is. Don’t use something obvious like your’s or your mother’s maiden name, date of birth, digits of your social security number, and so on. After working in tech support for a number of years I can’t tell you how many times people would use overly simple passwords. Just because it’s long doesn’t mean it’s secure. Also, be sure that nobody is watching you while you type in your password and don’t type in sensitive passwords on public computers.
6. Keep Your Info Secure. If you share your residence with some one or employ some one for service, keep your personal info such as passport, social security number, checkbooks, and anything else of value locked up. Sure, you might not think the plumber is a bad guy, but while he’s down fixing a pipe he might also be snooping for account numbers. Invest in a personal lock box or filing cabinet to keep the majority of your important financial documents secure.
7. Protect Your Data From Radio Frequency Theft. Your documents such as credit cards and passport may have tags which makes them susceptible to theft using radio frequency (RFID). Use metal lined wallets or invest in a protective shield for your cards. While not an incredibly common type of theft right now, it is becoming increasingly important to protect this type of data.
8. Cancel Credit And Debit Cards If You Lose Them. Even if you think that you have just misplaced them, it is better to inform the bank or issuer immediately. Every minute your card is missing is a minute a thief could be racking up charges. Sure, you may not be liable for the charges anyway, but it’s still a hassle to deal with fighting all the charges. When you notice a card missing just call your bank and let them know. At the very least you can place a temporary hold on the card so that if you do find it you can turn it back on with ease.
9. Inspect Your Credit Reports, Financial Statements And Bills. Peruse your bank statements, bills, credit report, and mail for irregular activity such as transactions or purchases you did not make; or credit denials which cannot be normally explained. You are allowed a free credit report at least once a year. Make use of it. If you already used your free annual credit report and suspect there may be a problem you can always pay a small nominal fee for an actual credit score as well. It’s better to spot a problem early rather than find out too late.
10. Maintain Meticulous Records Of Your Financial Transactions. These will help you identify any discrepancy in your statements immediately. I know it’s easy to get into the habit of just glancing over a statement before shredding or trashing it, but take a few minutes each month to really look things over. A thief who has your information may simply be doing test transactions that amount to little more than a couple of dollars and could go undetected for months before they wipe out your entire account.
11. Have Your Mail Held At Local Post Office While Traveling. Your mail can be stolen and the info used for stealing your identity. If you take a little vacation you should schedule a hold for your mail. This ensures no mail is delivered and left sitting in your mailbox while you’re away. It may be tempting to have a friend or neighbor get your mail for you, but it’s better to play it safe and just have the post office hold it. It doesn’t cost anything and it’s the most secure method of holding your mail.
13. Use a Private Area If You Need to Pass Financial Info Through Telephone. Cell phones are our lifelines. We take them everywhere we go and conduct most of our business over the phone. While in a public place be mindful of what you’re saying. What could be a seemingly harmless conversation could be providing an eavesdropping thief a ton of information to be used against you. Take a moment to step outside or into a less-crowded place before talking about anything personal or financial in nature.
Following these tips should protect your from identity thefts in most cases. If you do find any discrepancies, close any unauthorized accounts, inform banks, and file a police report. Report your complaint to Federal Trade Commission. Prompt action will help immensely in a situation like this.
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About the Author: Jeremy Vohwinkle is a Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor® and spent a few years working as a financial planner. Today, he helps people make the most of their money by writing about personal finance here and elsewhere on the web. Jeremy is also Coach at Adaptu and a regular contributor for other publications such as Intuit, and American Express. Be sure to follow Jeremy on Twitter or Google+.