Identity theft occurs when someone wrongfully obtains your personal information and misuses it to cause fraud or deception. There are many financial and non-financial reasons why crooks commit identity theft. Identity theft goes beyond the misuse of credit card or bank account numbers. Identity theft can happen to anyone regardless of age or social status.
Approximately 10 million people in the United States are estimated to become victims of identity theft each year. Identity theft has been the number one consumer complaint over the last 13 years. Many victims may not realize they are victims of identity theft for several months or even several years after they were victimized.
Some of the common types of identity theft include: bank fraud, credit card fraud, employment fraud, Social Security and government benefits fraud, insurance fraud, housing and mortgage fraud, medical, character, government identification, and child.
The list that follows provides 10 immediate steps you can take now that will either decrease your risk of becoming a victim of identity theft or help you recognize you are a victim so you can take immediate steps to minimize further damage to your good name.
Protect your personal information
Use common sense. Be aware, be careful and act sensibly when it comes to sharing your personal information. Protect your personally identifiable information. The most valuable information is your name combined with your Social Security number and your date of birth.
Limit the identification and credit cards that you carry. Remove anything containing your Social Security number from your wallet or purse because a stolen wallet or purse can result in identity theft.
Recently, a Memphis woman, who had her purse stolen, described her bout with identity theft. Not only were her credit cards charged with unauthorized purchases but she was also arrested and detained in jail for days. She has also been unable to obtain employment because of the character damage resulting from identity theft.
Secure your mail
Deposit outgoing mail containing sensitive information in a secure mailbox inside the post office, and have your mail delivered to a locked mailbox whenever possible. Avoid putting outgoing mail, especially mail containing bank checks, account information and other personal information in your residential mail box for pick up. The red flag on the mailbox is a signal to identity thieves to steal the mail inside.
Mail theft is common from residential mailboxes and it is not uncommon that U.S. postal services mailboxes and delivery trucks to be stolen too.
For a higher level of protection write out checks with a “gel ink pen” to avoid your stolen checks from being washed and rewritten. Ball point ink can be removed easily from checks, and the checks can be rewritten. Gel ink cannot be washed off of checks.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service also offers tips to protect your mail.
Shred, shred, shred.
Shred ALL documents before you discard them if they contain sensitive information. Shred pre-approved credit card, insurance offers, and those blank checks that are mailed so often by credit card companies (see illustration) .
You can also opt out of many of these credit and insurance offers online at: www.OptOutPrescreen.com or by calling 888-567-8688. This will reduce the amount of junk mail you have to shred. You will have the choice of opting out for five years with an electronic application that takes seconds to complete, or you may choose to permanently opt out of receiving credit and insurance offers in the mail by submitting a paper application by mail.
While you are at it, you might want to visit the Direct Marketing Association's DMAchoice.org Website and opt out of receiving unwanted sales and marketing direct mail and email.
Personal shredders are inexpensive. You do not need to purchase an expensive office shredder that can shred bricks! You should also purge your records annually and if you find yourself with a box full of personal papers that need to be shredded, look for a "Shred Fest" in your area where you can drop off a box or two of paper records to be shred on-the-spot for free by a commercial shredding company.
Review your credit reports
Monitor your credit reports regularly. If you find value and convenience in a credit monitoring service, then subscribe to one or better yet subscribe to an identity protection service (See item #10) that includes credit monitoring. Otherwise take advantage of the Federal law that provides you access to free annual credit reports. The official site is www.AnnualCreditReport.com, where you can download your credit reports or call 877-322-8228.
Reviewing your free credit reports annually will not likely prevent ID theft, but identifying items that are not yours such as credit cards, loans, collections and bankruptcies can give you a heads up warning that you are a victim. There are three credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Don't review all three at once, unless you have credit monitoring. Stagger the review. Rotate review in month 1, 5, and 9, and then repeat in the same sequence the following year. Remember that the three credit reporting agencies do not share information with each other, but some creditors share information with all three.
Credit monitoring is more effective and can give an early warning of identity theft and prevent damage to your name. For example, if a thief attempts to obtain a new credit card in your name, the creditor generally checks your credit report for credit worthiness first before processing and issuing the credit. With credit monitoring you will be notified electronically that the creditor made an inquiry. The early warning gives you the ability to stop the creditor from issuing the card.
Monitor accounts regularly
Monitor your credit card and bank statements for errors, unauthorized charges and withdrawals. Report concerns immediately to the financial institution. Prompt reporting is essential to reduce or eliminate your losses and prevent further fraud and inconveniences.
If you subscribe to credit monitoring or identity protection services, treat them like any other financial account. If you receive activity alerts by mail or electronically treat those alerts as urgent and serious.You are paying for these services to alert you and protect you from becoming a victim of identity theft. We have seen subscribers receive the alerts, and being too busy to review them, they ended up with a complicated identity theft situation that could have been avoided completely had they reviewed the alerts.
Review medical records
Review your health care billing records carefully, and when you visit your doctor's office annually review your medical records for fraud, medical identity theft and errors.The closest thing to a credit reporting agency in the medical world is the MIB.
No, MIB is not Men in Black.
Review your Medical Information Bureau (MIB) records annually. To request a copy go to www.MIB.com and select "Request Your MIB Consumer File;" or call 866-692-6901. You may review your MIB consumer file at no cost annually. Read the MIB article, Can Medical Identity Theft Impact my MIB Consumer File?
Medical identity theft in on the rise, and it is challenging to detect. If an identity thief uses your medical identity and that use results in the augmentation of your medical records, there is a possibility you could be mistreated in an emergency situation when a doctor must make treatment decisions based on what is in your medical records. Such mistreatment could result in death.
There is evidence and concern that Obamacare is creating new opportunities for identity thieves to commit identity theft and other fraud. Scam and fraud alerts have been issued by the BBB, AARP, and the FTC. One expert suggests that purchasing identity protection services will be the best way to guard against the possibility of medical identity theft.
Review your Social Security statement
Review your Social Security statement annually for errors and clues of identity theft. You may request your SSA statement at www.ssa.gov and click on "my Social Security" or by calling 800-772-1213.
Review your earnings each year. If you notice a discrepancy in your reported earnings being greater than your actual earnings, this may indicate that one or more imposters are using your name and Social Security number for employment. If they using it to commit employment fraud, they are likely using your information for many other types of fraud as enumerated in the opening paragraphs to this article.
Beware of social engineering
Social engineering is the clever manipulation of a human to gain trust. Simply put, a crook gets you to divulge personal information about yourself that you would not normally share with a stranger. They do this by posing as a credible figure, an authority, a representative of a respected institution or by telling you a compelling story.
Do not give out personal information unless you are 110% certain that you know whom you are sharing information with. Do not let a uniform, identification badge, caller ID, letterhead, email, or Website fool you into providing any information about yourself, your business or your family.
Always verify with whom you are sharing information by contacting the institution they claim to represent.
- Your financial institutions and government agencies already have your personal information on record. They will not contact you to ask you to provide that information.
- Don't be fooled by a "Caller ID." A scheme called vishing, involves manipulating what you see on your called ID. Just because it says, Sheriff Department, doesn't mean it's so.
- Financial institutions and government agencies do not send unsolicited emails requesting your information. Official correspondence is by U.S. Mail. If you are uncertain the mail may be fraudulent, call the institution at a number that you get out of the phone book or through an Internet search, and not the number shown on the email or letter.
- Don't expect government employees or other institutions to make unannounced door-to-door visits to explain programs and to take your personal information.
Use basic computer security and safe-surfing techniques
We could have 10 items on the subject of computer security alone.
In summary, use a hardware and software firewall; use anti-virus, anti-spyware and anti-malware security software or a security suite and keep them up to date; keep your operating system (Windows, MacOS, Android) and software applications' security updates current; use secure websites for e-commerce (look for https:// in the address bar); use strong passwords (eight characters or more and a combination of numbers, symbols and upper and lower case letters); backup your important files.
Today, most computers come with security software installed and all updates can be set up to be take place automatically. The danger is that users may intervene and stop updates, interrupt security scans, and use dangerous surfing techniques, leaving their computers and themselves vulnerable to attacks by hackers and identity thieves.
And don't forget your smart phone. Install security software and keep all software updated. Remember, it's not a phone, it's a computer that has the features of a telephone built into it.
Purchase identity protection
Whether or not the first nine preventive steps seem overwhelming, you should consider the purchase a quality premium identity protection service that includes complete identity restoration services by licensed professionals and credit monitoring and that also covers all of your family members.
We recently published a guide to evaluating identity protection services.
Congratulations if you already have credit monitoring or identity protection services. However, if you do not have one that provides licensed investigators that are credentialed to work with victims of identity theft then consider upgrading to a premium service that does. You may contact the author (608-241-3500) of this article directly for recommendations on identity protection services.
Don't forget about your spouse or partner and any children. If they are victimized, you will be victimized too. Look for identity protection plans that cover them too at no or incidental cost. Child identity theft is on the rise and according to the BBB, college students and young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are particularly vulnerable to identity theft.
We conclude by giving the best overall advice we can give on preventing identity theft. Be aware of identity theft and use common sense in preventing it. For example protect you personal information and do not share it with others. Even with the best identity protection services available you should do everything to prevent becoming a victim.