Last Updated: August 23, 2010
A mailbox full of bills might be one lure for identity thieves, but it’s not the only one. Start by cutting your risk.
Security experts say that identity theft evolves as quickly as law enforcement and consumers find new ways of fighting back. For example, the Federal Trade Commission has reported that one of the top identity theft scams involved offering federal stimulus money in exchange for financial information. Thieves are also getting younger since young people are the earliest adopters of the latest computer and online skills.
What can you do? Here are some ideas:
Change your online record-keeping behavior: If you download bank or credit activities to Quicken or Microsoft Money, don’t store passwords on that software. It may slow you down, but take the time to type in that access data, and then log off as soon as you’ve completed your transactions and close the browser, too. Never put this data on a wireless-enabled computer – identity thieves lurk in coffeehouses and other public places to capture data that’s traveling through the air. Confine these activities to the desktop and secure terrestrial Internet connections.
Put a lock on your mailbox: If you work long hours or are otherwise not available to grab your physical mail as soon as your letter carrier drops it off, either install a high mail slot on a door with a strong lock (so a thief can’t reach in and grab mail that’s fallen on the floor), or install an outdoor mailbox with a key lock on it that only you can open. Also, talk to your bank or check printer about secure ways to receive delivery of printed checks. Identity thieves have stepped up theft of checks because many people are not being granted checking accounts in this tough economy and stolen account numbers are being used fraudulently.
Shred or cut up any receipts or credit and account documents: A strong, safe paper shredder really is a good investment. You should shred: credit solicitations, receipts you’re not keeping for tax time, line of credit checks that come in your monthly credit card bills (which you shouldn’t be using anyway), and tax- or investment-related evidence for prior-year returns your tax adviser says you no longer have to keep.
Guard your Social Security number above all: Never, ever share this information unless you are dealing with a recognized financial institution that you trust. Never put it on a check or type it into an online form.
Phishing is still an issue: Scam artists “phish” by using fraudulent messages, phone calls, any kind of communication to get you to divulge your social security number, your account numbers, address or other personal information under the guise of a legitimate company you may already be doing business with. They’ll get your attention by saying there’s a problem with your account you have to address immediately. Online, the scams are so sophisticated that you’ll see e-mails that look exactly like the ones your bank, credit card or even your airline mileage club would send you, right down to the logos and disclaimers. Anytime anyone asks you for personal information, use your own account customer service number (not the one on the mailing) to speak to a live person to verify that the request is real. If it’s not, save the evidence – it may help put the con artists in jail.
Change your passwords occasionally: If the only username and passwords you can remember are your e-mail address and your dog’s name, you need to develop a schedule for changing those passwords and storing that information in a safe place off your computer. Again, resist storing this information on your computer.
Watch the social networking: Whether you’re on a site like Facebook or LinkedIn or if you keep a profile on online dating sites or other group sites, be wary of what information you keep online and also screen your own posts for data that might identify where you live, how you save and spend, even when you’re going on vacation. You’re being watched.
Get each of your credit reports once a year: By law, you’re entitled to free copies of your credit report from each of the three major credit rating agencies – TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. Don’t get them all at once – stagger them three to four months apart so you can see if erroneous data appears throughout the year. Also, if you are on active duty with the military, you can place an active duty alert on your credit reports to help minimize the risk of identity theft while you are deployed. Active duty alerts are in effect on your report for one year – if your deployment lasts longer, you can place another alert on your credit report. Couples need to check their credit reports individually.
Think twice about identity theft insurance: Some companies offer identity theft insurance that will cover lost pay if you have to straighten out your credit, but realize they will not do the dirty job of restoring your credit – that’s up to you. And since many of the companies selling this insurance are already affiliated with the credit industry, that’s good reason to pause. Also, check your home or renter’s insurance policy to see if they provide identity theft coverage. Most important, be aware that some of the identity theft prevention marketers are scams themselves! A good resource on identity theft recovery is the Federal Trade Commission’s identity theft web site.
Be wary at tax time: Individuals who pay taxes quarterly should always be wary that identity thieves are watching paper returns and forms for social security numbers and other key data. Make sure that if you are mailing your return, do it at the post office, not at remote mailboxes that could be broken open.
Stick with a known ATM: Some of those independent ATMs you see in convenience stores, restaurants and bars may be collecting your data for illegal use. Use ATMs only at established banks.
Watch your wallet, cell phone and laptops: Identity thieves can hit you the old-fashioned way – by taking your stuff when you’re not looking. Keep only a few necessary items in your wallet and regularly clean out receipts and other data that would identify you. It is a good idea to keep a photocopy of the contents of your wallet in a safe place for quick reference should a theft occur. This is extremely important when leaving the country. Include a copy of your passport as well. Leave one copy at home with a reliable person who can fax or email it to you or an embassy. Never leave a laptop sitting in a public place, even if people agree to “watch” it for you, and always secure your laptop with a password. Keep in mind that an Internet- and address book-equipped cell phone is a potential gold mine – they’ll not only get your information, but they’ll be able to try and rip off all your contacts.