Is Your Identity Adequately Protected?
By Ric Edelman
Identity theft is a growing problem. Once stolen, thieves obtain money, services, products, and even jobs in your name. Thieves sift through garbage to find sensitive information. They steal wallets and mail. They overhear your conversations in public places, or they trick you into giving them information over the phone or though the mail.
Much of your personal data is already publicly available, thanks to voter registration records, real estate transactions, and divorce proceedings. Increasingly, identity thieves have access to your information via the Internet.
If your identity is stolen, it can take years to clear your name. Your credit history might be ruined, and you might lose substantial sums of money. It is impossible to completely protect your information, but here are steps you may wish to take to reduce your risk.
- Don’t toss; instead shred. Buy a personal shredder for home use, and shred any documents that contain personal information. This includes credit card numbers, account numbers, Social Security numbers, birth dates, previous and current addresses, passwords, phone numbers, and driver’s license numbers.
- Shred all financial junk mail, such as subscription or donation requests, credit card offers, and “convenience” checks. Thieves search trash to find these forms, complete them, then steal the cards when they arrive in your mailbox. They start using credit cards you don’t even know you have.
- Shred utility bills, bank statements, and credit card receipts you plan to throw away. Store in a secure location those you retain. Carry only those identification cards you use. Secure or shred the rest.
- Review your credit report at least annually. Make sure the data is accurate, and close any accounts you no longer use. If you find errors, contact the credit reporting agency, not the creditor that filed the information.
- Having your mail delivered to your unlocked mail box allows easy access. Better: Use a locked mail box. Best: Have all mail delivered to a rented post office box. If a street address is required, rent a box at a commercial firm such as Mail Boxes Etc. Never allow your financial institutions to mail statements, checks, or credit/debit cards to your home. Use your PO box address on all financial accounts. If you suddenly don’t receive mail, contact the local post office immediately. Thieves are known to submit change of address forms that route your mail to them.
- Get a new “non-published” telephone number from the phone company. It’s not perfect, but it’ll reduce access to your phone number and address. Expect to pay a fee for keeping your new number out of the telephone directory.
- Photocopy all documents you carry in your wallet or purse. On that copy, write the telephone number and e-mail address for each source. Also carry with you the following information:
Transunion: 1-800-888-4213; fraud division: 1-800-680-7289
Equifax: 1-800-685-1111; fraud division: 1-800-525-6285
Experian 1-888-397-3742; fraud division: 1-888-397-3742
Also keep with you the telephone number for your state’s department of motor vehicles.Keep this information with you, but stored away from your wallet or purse. This way, if your wallet or purse is lost or stolen, you can immediately issue notifications.
- Your Social Security Number is the most important number to guard. With it, thieves can open bank and credit card accounts in your name. Unfortunately, your Social Security Number is easy to get once a thief has your name and address. Therefore, make it hard for the thief to get your address and telephone number. To learn more about how professionals use the Internet to get Social Security numbers illegally, go to www.backgroundcheckgateway.com or www.accurint.com. Also:
- Avoid using your Social Security number as an ID number. If your state uses it as your driver’s license number, request an alternative number from the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
- If your SSN is on your checks, shred them and get new ones that omit the number.
- If you use your SSN as an ID or password number, change your ID or password.
- Never use any part of your SSN as a PIN, especially on the Internet or with bank accounts.
- Never carry your SS card with you. Store it in a fireproof safe along with other important documents. If you have not done so already, memorize your SSN. Never carry any document bearing your Social Security Number.
- Any time you are asked for your SSN, such as at the doctor’s office, ask to use a different number. In most cases, your SSN is not required and is used by vendors unnecessarily. Try to avoid giving your SSN over the phone or on the Internet.
- Limit the information you have printed on your checks -- the less the better. Instead of using your first name, consider using your first initial. Avoid your middle name or initial. Do not include your driver’s license number, Social Security Number or telephone number. Consider removing your address, or replacing it with a post office box number. Never write a credit card or Social Security Number on a check.
- Use checks only when paying bills through the mail; in stores, use charge or debit cards. Never add information to a charge card slip (such as your phone number or address). It is illegal to ask you to do so in most states. Always take your card receipts with you; check them against your monthly statement before shredding.
- Do not use any part of your address or birth date as a PIN. Never write your PIN anywhere.
- Ready to mail your bill payments? Don’t leave them in the open. Thieves will grab them off your desk, use cleaning solvent to remove the payee’s name, and replace it with another name that enables them to get the money. And once thieves have your checks or your checking account number, they can use computers to print checks with your name on them.
- Never put any information about yourself on a post card or on the outside of an envelope other than a return address.
- Stop giving people your mother’s maiden name. It helps crooks access private information about you.
- When a new credit card arrives, sign the back immediately using permanent ink. Never carry more than two credit cards. Don’t give your credit card number over the phone unless you initiated the call, and never do so in a public place, including at work. Never give your credit card number when using a portable or cell phone. If a credit card you’ve ordered does not arrive promptly, call the card issuer.
- When you buy an item, keep the warranty information, but don’t mail the warranty reply card, especially if it is a post card. (Doing so offers you no protection you don’t already have.)
- Avoid entering contests that require you to provide your name, address, or other personal or financial information.
- To restrict access to your personal data, remove your name from as many data bases as possible. For example, contact the Direct Marketing Association at www.the-dma.org. You can reach all three credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Transunion and Experian) by dialing 888-567-8688.
- Keep important papers in a bank safe deposit box or in a home safe that is fire and burglar resistant. These documents include your Social Security Card, marriage license, pay stubs, credit cards, military papers, bank, investment, tax, and real estate records.
- If your computer is connected to the Internet, set your computer to erase daily the sites you visit by completing the following steps. Click on “Start” and select “Settings.” Click on “Control Panel” and select “Internet Options.” When that page appears, go to “History.” And set “days to keep” to zero. Also, install a “firewall” to keep thieves from accessing your electronic files via cyberspace. Remember that anything you say or attach in an e-mail could end up anywhere. Never include personal information in an e-mail. When you use a credit card to make a purchase on-line, look for a padlock that identifies a secure web site.
- Remember that identity thieves are not always strangers. They could be co-workers, friends, relatives, roommates, and others physically or emotionally close to you. Thieves often steal from people they know, sometimes because they know you are unlikely to suspect them, and sometimes because they know you are unlikely to punish them.
- Learn more about protecting your identity at www.identitytheft.org.