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What You Can Do to Prevent Identity Theft

As damaging as identity theft can be and as vulnerable as we are to identity theft, there are a number of relatively simple things you can do to make yourself less likely to become a victim of identity theft:

  • Do a little spring cleaning in your wallet or purse even if it is the middle of summer. Do you really need to carry all the cards and identifications that you presently carry? In particular, don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet or purse. In the hands of an identity thief, it is the key to identity theft.
  • If you rent a car while on vacation, remember to destroy your copy of the rental agreement after you have returned the car. Don’t leave it in the glove compartment.
  • Stolen mail is a ripe source of identity theft. When you are traveling, you might want to have a neighbor you trust pick up your mail every day or have your mail held at the post office until your return. Extremely careful people or extremely paranoid people, depending on your characterization of the same people, might prefer to use a post office box at the post office for receiving mail rather than a mailbox at home. Identity thieves also get your mail by filling out a “change of address” form using your name to divert your mail to them. If you find that you are not receiving any mail for a couple of days, it is worth contacting your local postmaster to make sure everything is okay. The U.S. Postal Service now requires post offices to send a “Move Validation Letter” to both the old and the new address whenever a change of address is filed. If you receive one of these notices and you have not recently changed your address, you should respond immediately because it could well be a warning that an identity thief has targeted you. A careful credit card user keeps an eye on his or her mailbox for the arrival each month of the monthly statement from the credit card company. If a bill is missing from your mail, it might mean that someone has hijacked your account and filed a change of address form with the credit card issuer to buy some more time. The sooner you are aware that the security of your account has been compromised, the better off you will be. You should also be particularly watchful of the mail when your card is close to expiration. An identity thief might be in a position to steal your mail containing your new card. If an identity thief is armed with enough personal information to activate the card, you could be in trouble.
  • Prudent people might want to use travelers’ checks while on vacation rather than taking their checkbook, because an enterprising identity thief who manages to get your checkbook can access your checking account and drain it.
  • Be wary of who might be around you when you use an ATM (automated teller machine). Someone might be looking over your shoulder as you input your PIN. That same someone might lift your wallet shortly thereafter. Next step: disaster. In addition, ATMs are common targets for identity thieves who tamper with the machine by installing devices called skimmers that can read your card as you insert it into the machine. This information is then electronically transferred to the identity thief, who creates a duplicate of your card and is able to access your account. Never use an ATM if it appears in any way to have been tampered with, and always check for evidence of tampering in the slot where you insert your card. If it appears loose, go to another machine.
  • Make copies of all of your credit cards, front and back, so that you can tell whether a card has been lost or stolen. Also keep a list of the customer service telephone numbers for each card. When copying your cards, you might also want to consider whether you really need that many cards.
  • Be careful when storing personal information and mail, even in your own home. Louisiana police arrested a baby sitter on identity theft charges for stealing credit applications mailed to the people for whom she was baby sitting and for opening accounts using the Social Security number of her employer, which she obtained by rummaging through her employer’s documents.
  • After you have received a loan, a credit card, or anything else that required you to complete an application containing your Social Security number, request that your Social Security number be removed from the application kept on record. In addition, if you are feeling particularly paranoid (and it is important to remember that even paranoids have enemies), ask that your credit report used by the bank or other institution be shredded (cross shredded, remember?). They no longer need this information after you have received your loan. Holding your Social Security number in their data banks only serves to make you vulnerable to identity theft should the company suffer a data breach.
  • Make life easier for yourself. Remove yourself from the marketing lists for preapproved credit cards and other solicitations. You can remove yourself from the Direct Marketing Association’s solicitation list by writing to them at Mail Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale, NY 11735. Include your name and address, but no other personal information. You can also take yourself off of the list of preapproved credit offers for five years by going online to www.optoutprescreen.com. Register for the Direct Marketing Association’s Mail Preference Service to opt out of national mailing lists online at www.dmachoice.org. You can also print the form and get yourself removed from mailing lists. Additionally, at the same website, you can also remove yourself from commercial e-mail solicitations. When you go to www.dmachoice.org, go to the Consumer FAQ page, where you will find the links to remove yourself from these mailing lists. DMA members are required to remove people who have registered with the Mail Preference Service from their mailings. However, because the list is distributed only four times a year, it can take about three months from the time that your name has been entered to see a reduction in junk mail. It is also important to remember that many spammers are not members of the Direct Marketing Association, so you can still expect to receive some spam e-mails as well as spam snail mail.
  • If you do get unwanted spam e-mails, do not click on the “remove me” link provided by many spam e-mails. All you will succeed in doing is letting them know that you are an active address and you will end up receiving even more unwanted e-mails.
  • If you receive spam faxes, you also should be wary of contacting the telephone number provided in many spam faxes to remove yourself from their lists. It is already illegal for you to have received a spam fax. Contacting someone who is already ignoring the law by having sent you the spam fax might cost you for the call and will not reduce your spam faxes.
  • Sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry to reduce unwanted telemarketing calls. Most telemarketers are legitimate. Almost all are annoying and many are criminals setting you up for identity theft or other scams. To sign up for the Do Not Call Registry, you may call toll free 888-382-1222 or register online at www.donotcall.gov. Again it is important to remember that criminals pay little attention to the Do Not Call Registry, so it does not prevent identity thieves and scam artists from calling you. However, knowing that a telemarketer calling you is in violation of the Do Not Call Registry is a good indication that the caller is not worth listening to and you should hang up right away.
  • Check your credit report at least annually, and remember to get copies from each of the three major credit-reporting bureaus, all of which independently compile the information contained in their files. Federal law permits you to annually obtain a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. You can get your free credit reports by going to www.annualcreditreport.com or by calling 877-322-8228. It is important to note that there are a lot of companies that appear to be offering free credit reports, but if you read the fine print (and rarely will you find anything fine in fine print), you might learn that when you sign up for your “free” credit report with one of these companies, you will have also signed up for a costly monthly service that you might not have desired. A good indication that the offer to provide you with a free credit report is not “free” is when you are required to provide them with a credit card. Why would you need to provide a credit card number for a free service? The only official website from which you can truly obtain your credit reports free without any conditions is www.annualcreditreport.com. Be wary of websites with deceptively similar URLs. You also might want to consider staggering the obtaining of your credit reports by ordering one of your credit reports from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies every four months so that the information you are receiving is more current. Look over your file and make sure everything is in order. Particularly look for unauthorized and inaccurate charges or accounts. Also, check out the section of your report that deals with inquiries. A large number of inquiries that you have not authorized could be the tracks of an identity thief trying to open accounts in your name. A large number of inquiries can also have the harmful effect of lowering your credit score.
  • Check your Social Security statement as provided by the Social Security Administration annually. It provides an estimate of your Social Security benefits and your contributions and can be helpful in detecting fraud. It is also a good thing to check this statement carefully each year to make sure that the information contained within it is accurate to ensure that you are slated to receive all the Social Security benefits to which you are entitled.
  • Don’t carry your Social Security card with you. You don’t need it with you at all times, and if your wallet or purse containing your Social Security card is lost or stolen, you have handed over the key to identity theft to a criminal.
  • Carefully examine your monthly bank and credit card statements for any discrepancies. This can be particularly important in limiting liability for the use of a stolen debit card.
  • Carefully examine all medical bills and statements for services that you receive to make sure that medical charges are not being made for services received by someone else using your medical insurance.
  • Never give personal information on the phone to someone you have not called. You can never be sure of the real identity of anyone who calls you. Even if you have caller ID and it seems to indicate that the call is legitimate, such as appearing to come from your bank, it might not be legitimate. Identity thieves are able to “spoof” legitimate numbers so that the number that appears on your caller ID appears legitimate when, in fact, it is not the real number calling you. If you believe that the call might be legitimate, merely hang up and call the company back at a number that you are sure is the correct and legitimate number.
  • Protect your computer with a strong password as well as a proper firewall and with antivirus and anti-malware security software, and make sure that it is automatically updated.
  • Protect your smartphone and other portable devices with security software and complex passwords.
  • Shred, shred, shred any documents that you intend to discard that contain any personal information. Make sure that you use a cross shredder because vertically shredded material can be reconstructed by identity thieves. Although the IRS has up to six years in which to audit your income tax return if they allege you underreported your income by at least 25 percent, you are probably safe shredding income tax returns and supporting records after three years, the normal period for the IRS to perform an audit. Credit card statements, canceled checks, and bank statements should be shredded after three years.
  • When doing any financial transactions on your computer, laptop, smartphone, or other electronic device, make sure that your communications are encrypted. This is particularly important if you are using public Wi-Fi.
  • Don’t share your passwords with anyone. Trust me, you can’t trust anyone. Make sure that you use complicated passwords that are not something easily identified with you, such as your pet’s name.
  • Limit the information you share on social networking sites in order to make it more difficult for identity thieves to access personal information that can be used to make you a victim of identity theft.
  • I know it is boring, but read the privacy policies of any websites you use where you provide personal information. Make sure you know what they do with your personal information, whether they share it with anyone, and how they protect it. What you read might surprise you and it might influence you to avoid that particular website.
  • Not all of your personal information is on your computer and not all identity thieves come from Nigeria. Sometimes they are relatives, neighbors, or anyone else who might have access to your home and access to your personal records that might contain your Social Security number or other important personal information. Keep your personal and financial information documents locked and secure at home.
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