How can I protect myself from identity theft?
How many times do you go to the mall with a fistful of personal identification including your social security number, credit card numbers, home mailing address, and bank account information? When you’re at the mall, do you post all of them on the bulletin board for everyone to see before spending the afternoon shopping? Probably not.
Instead, you probably try to keep all that information hidden in your pocket or purse. You know that if all of those cards were stolen, you’d have a hard time proving who you were, and someone might be able to steal your identity. The same is true online. If you’re not protecting your personal information, you are putting yourself at risk. See below for more information on how you can improve your chances against these criminals.
There are many strategies you can implement quickly and easily to protect your identity both online and offline:
- Do you really need all those cards in your wallet? Check whether you really need to be carrying all of the cards you have in your wallet around with you everywhere – do you need to have your social security number (SSN) with you? Are you carrying your passport around? If you don’t need it, don’t carry it. Find somewhere safer for the cards you don’t need. That way if your wallet is stolen, at least you’ll have some identification cards to be able to identify yourself.
- Do you carry your personal identification numbers (PINS) in your wallet? You know you shouldn’t, so try to memorize these, and throw out the little reminders! Little notes with PIN numbers can give criminals easy access to your accounts – and some banks aren’t very sympathetic if they hear that you gave the criminal your pin.
- Do you have photocopies of important identification cards? It’s a good idea to take photocopies of important identification cards when you get them and keep these photocopies in a safety deposit box, or hidden at home. That way, if your identity is stolen, at least you will have some proof of who you are. These can help you re-establish your identity a little bit faster. If you don’t have access to a photocopier, you can just write down all of the numbers on these cards. Be sure to store this information in a very safe place.
- Do you pay by cash? Using cash to pay for items instead of using credit or debit cards helps to keep your identity safe. By leaving your credit and debit card numbers in your wallet instead of on receipts and registers, you reduce the chances that someone will see these numbers and try to take advantage of you. Paying by cash also helps with money management. Use a service like eBillme when you are shopping online – this service allows you to shop online and pay by cash.
- Do you shred papers that contain your personal information? The average home shredding machine costs under 50$ (eBillme recommends: Buy.com Shredders). Shredding old credit card statements or receipts that contain credit card numbers is easy and ensures that criminals won’t be able to gain access to your identity by rooting through your garbage (AKA dumpster diving).
- Do you know your card company’s policies on identity theft?
Check with your credit or debit card company – Some good questions to ask are:
- Who is liable if your card is stolen?
- What sort of policies do they have in place to protect you?
- Will they call you if they suspect someone has stolen your card and is putting unauthorized transactions on it?
Make sure that you are comfortable with your credit or debit card company’s policies. If you aren’t, it may be a good time to start shopping around for a new credit card.
Are all of your cards signed?
Sign all important identification and credit/debit cards on the back as soon as you get them. If you notice that your signature has worn off, get the card replaced as soon as possible.
Do you reveal important numbers over the phone?
A popular new scam is for thieves to call you posing as your credit card company. They often have some information about you, but not all, and they ask if you can fill them in on the rest. You should know that no legitimate credit card company will ask you to reveal the 3-digit security code on the back of your card – if someone calls asking you for this, you should hang up and report the phone call to the police.
Do you have identity theft insurance?
Identity theft insurance attempts to protect you from the financial difficulties incurred while re-instating your identity. It generally costs between $20 and $100 per year. According to consumer reports though, identity theft insurance is generally not worth the cost because there’s really not much these insurance companies can actually do for you if your identity has been compromised. You need to do most of the work to reclaim your identity yourself.
Some credit card companies include this type of service for free – ask yours how they will help you if your identity is stolen.
Do you shop only at secure web sites?
You can tell if a web site is secure by:
- Looking at the top of the screen where you see https. The “s” means that the site is secure. You might not see it until you actually get to the page where you make your online purchase though.
- Look for a closed padlock at the bottom of the screen. If the lock is open, the site isn’t secure. If the lock is closed, the site is secure.
- If you see an unbroken key at the bottom of your screen, that also indicates a secure site.
- Do you use a personal firewall?
If you’re shopping online without anything to block the rest of the world from seeing your personal information, you are opening yourself up to becoming a victim of identity theft. There are all kinds of software programs available at different costs designed to prevent identity theft by putting up a “wall” or a “firewall” as it’s called. When someone tries to hack into your computer, the software program identifies the problem and blocks it from happening.
If you don’t use one of these programs, you might not be protected against the latest Internet identity theft threats. That’s the same as leaving your back door wide open and all of your personal information on the back porch. People can then come and go as they please, using your information for whatever they want.
Do you know what a phishing email is and do you know what to do if you get one?
Everyone has heard of fishing, but have you heard of phishing? People are really creative and can, unfortunately, create emails that look just like letters or notifications from your banking institutions, government agencies, or legitimate businesses.
They’re called phishing emails and they’re usually written in a way that alerts you to a possible problem with your account. What they want you to do is click on a certain link where you’ll be asked to type in your account information. It’s like taking candy from babies.
As soon as you hit “send” some criminal has instant access to your bank account. The next thing you know, you’ve become a victim of identity theft. There are ways to protect yourself from this kind of email scam though. It’s easy - if you receive an email from a bank you don’t even use, delete it.
If you receive an email that seems to be from a company you’ve recently used or your bank, don’t respond to the email in any way. To protect yourself from identity theft, contact the company or your bank to find out if the email is real.
If it isn’t, banks usually provide a dedicated customer service phone number or email address where you can send fraudulent emails. If you suspect that you have a fraud email, cut and paste the email and send it to the bank.
The best secure socket layer certificate, or SSL, in the world can’t protect you from this type of fraud. Just remember that any legitimate bank or company won’t ask for you to send them personal information through email.
You can also report phishing emails here: AntiPhishing.Org.
If you think you or someone you know has fallen prey to a phishing scheme, you should always report identity theft to your local authorities.
For more information about identity theft, and in particular identity theft when you’re traveling overseas, see AboutIdentityTheft.co.uk.