By now everybody has heard of some horror story about identity theft from TV shows or magazine articles. In the popular culture, references of identity theft are found in the novels and movies, notably Frederick Forsyth’s novel, “The day of the Jackal” and the 1995 movie “The Net.” In real life, the Identity Theft Resource Center (http://www.idtheftcenter.org) reports 8.9 millions identity theft victims in 2006.
So, what is an identity theft? An identity theft occurs when somebody steals vital pieces of personal information, e.g. your social security, credit card numbers, etc. and uses that information for financial gains by taking your identity. The most common form of identity theft involves credit card and mortgage frauds. But it can also be used for vicious crimes like drug dealings, terrorism, etc.
You may be surprised to know that many minor identity thefts are committed by someone you know. So, don’t make it an easy job for a person to steal your personal information from your wallet, checkbook, etc. Avoid leaving things containing your personal information lying around for others to have an easy access to that information.
Shred, shred, shred. Buy a cheap paper shredder from an office supply store and shred all your paid bills, used check books, etc. before tossing those into the trash. Put aside 30 minutes every Saturday morning for shredding anything that contained your personal information and you intend to trash. Make it a habit.
Never give out your personal information like your social security number; birth date etc. over the phone when the call you received is unsolicited. Your financial institutions have those information and they will not ask you for that. Sometimes, for verification purposes, they make ask you the last four digits of your social security number.
Don’t pay to get anybody to get a copy of your credit report. Because of a congressional mandate, all three-credit report bureaus will give you a copy of your credit report for free every year. Go to AnnualCreditreport.com to obtain your free credit report every year from TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. While obtaining your free credit report, these bureaus will push some paid services. Just ignore those.
Don’t get your free credit reports from the three bureaus all at the same time. Then you have to wait one year before you can get your reports again for free. In the mean time, some unwanted stuff may show up in your report. Get your free report every four months from each bureau. If you are using a PDA, password protect it to prevent others from accessing it.
Phishing is a popular method to steal sensitive information for identity theft purposes. Don’t be a phishing victim. Avoid clicking on any link that comes to your way through e-mails or IM. The e-mail will disguise itself coming from your financial institutions (your bank or PayPal accounts) and will urge you to click a link to verify your accounts or resort to such other tricks. Sometimes, it can be outright threatening. If you click the link you will end up in the thief’s website. And if you enter your user name and password, the thief will have enough information to log into your actual account.
Open online accounts for all your credit cards and financial accounts. Online accounts are not only convenient for faster bill paying, paperless transactions, etc.; they also help monitor your accounts frequently, instead of waiting for the monthly bill or statement to arrive. Monitor your accounts online every week and if you see any suspicious charges, checks, etc., call you banks immediately. Also setup e-mail based account alerts, if available, to alert you when charges are made to your accounts.
If possible, avoid putting your outgoing mails containing bills and checks in your mailboxes for easy access by a thief. Drop them in mailboxes located in the post office or street corners. Better yet, setup online bill payment with your bank and avoid the snail mail for bill paying.
You also need to keep your computer safe. Thieves can get into computers through spyware and unsecured wireless or network connections. Use anti-spyware programs and turn on your Windows default personal firewall program. To prevent viruses infecting your computer, use an anti-virus program. Setup accounts for each user of your computer and ask them to use strong passwords that include a combination of letters and numbers.
Another way to prevent anybody, including you, from opening any credit in your name is to freeze your credit. This option is not available in all states. If it is available in your state and you opt for this option, you need to lift the block before you allow anybody, e.g. an employer for a new job, creditor for a car loan, etc., to access your credit information. Though it is almost like a foolproof system to prevent identity theft, it is the also the most inconvenient method.