Just because you think some is out to get you…doesn’t mean they’re not!
Identity theft in all its different guises is becoming so prevalent that a bit of paranoia today is probably healthy. If you have a credit card, bank account, Social Security number, driver’s license, or mailbox, you have resources identity thieves have accessed to steal information and assume others’ identities. Broadly speaking, identity theft happens when someone steals your personal information and uses it without your permission.
Credit card and debit card scams have made news recently. Adobe Systems, Michael’s, Home Depot, and Target, are just four of the many companies whose credit card information has been accessed by hackers. In addition to these schemes, fraudsters also obtain information by a variety of methods including:
- Skimming: Credit card information is obtained from an otherwise legitimate transaction, such as in a restaurant, medical facility, or any other place where your card “disappears” to be processed.
- Phishing: Scammers call or email, representing themselves as employees of the “card service” and requesting information to “verify” credit card information or offer a lower interest rate.
- Pharming: Perpetrators install a malicious code on a computer or server which misdirects users to fraudulent websites which then seek to obtain credit card or other financial information.
- Balance Transfer Checks: Some credit card companies mail active balance transfer checks tied to their credit cards which are easily stolen from victims’ mailboxes.
With the increase in technology, many assume most identities are stolen through sophisticated computer activity, but this is not the case. According to recent research1, most identities are stolen through relatively low-tech traditional means including:
- A close associate, friend, family, neighbor or in-home employee,
- Lost or stolen wallets, credit cards, and checkbooks,
- Breached home computers, stolen mail, and trash.
Once an account has been compromised however, information can be used in a variety of schemes, including card not present transactions, application fraud, and account takeovers. Hackers can purchase and charge items, obtain loans, take over other charge accounts, and file false tax returns to obtain refunds to name just a few of the possibilities.
Credit Cards are not the only source of identity theft. Consider also:
- Social Security Numbers
- Drivers’ Licenses
- ATM and telephone calling cards
- Passwords and PINs
- Home Addresses and phone numbers
These are all documents and sources of information you should protect.
What are the red flags to look for indicating Identity Theft may be underway?
- Mistakes on your account and bank statements
- Mistakes on the explanation of benefits from your health plan
- Your regular bills and account statements don’t arrive on time
- Bills for products you never received
- Delivery of products you did not order (I received a brand new Apple laptop at my front door.)
- A notice from the IRS that someone other than you has used your Social Security number
- Mail, email or calls about accounts or jobs in your minor child’s name
- Misinformation on your credit report
- You are turned down unexpectedly for a loan or a job
- Businesses do not accept your checks or credit cards.
What can you do to protect yourself?
Know who you share information with:
- Know that banks, credit card companies, and other legitimate financial institutions do not request confidential data through telephone calls or email.
- Do not share personal information on any social networking sites.
- Connect to your financial accounts only from your own computer or using secure Wi-Fi connections.
- Reduce unsolicited mail and email at www.dmachoice.org. Click on Register for eMPS.
- Join the Do Not Call Registry at www.donotcall.gov, or call 1-888-382-1222.
- Remove your name from the marketing lists of the three credit reporting bureaus at www.optoutprescreen.com or call 1-888-567-8688.
- Ask why confidential information is needed and how it will be used and protected before you share it.
- Hang up on robocalls.
- Look for HTTPS after the name of a website. This provides a reasonable guarantee that you are communicating with precisely the website you intended (as opposed to an imposter), as well as ensuring that communications between you and the website cannot be read or forged by any third party.
Store and dispose of your personal information securely:
- Use a crosscut shredder to dispose of anything with identifying information, including credit card offers, travel packages, and “free prizes”.
- Use strong, unique passwords. If there are too many to remember, investigate secure online password storage apps. Do not auto-save passwords.
- Don’t carry your Social Security card or Medicare card unless you need to use it.
- Avoid the red flag on your mailbox if you have one. It’s safer now to pay bills online, but if you still pay by mail, do not leave outgoing mail in your mailbox with the red flag up.
- Avoid using credit cards at unfamiliar websites. Best not to store credit card information on any website.
- Maintain anti-virus and firewall protection on your devices. Encryption is also a good idea. Be sure any device is wiped clean of all information before you dispose of it. Password protect your devices as well.
- Monitor your credit reports. You are entitled to a free credit report annually from each of the three credit bureaus. Review these reports for any information that does not apply to you.
- Experian: www.experian.com or 1-888-397-3742
- TransUnion: www.transunioin.com or 1-800-680-7289
- Equifax: www.equifax.com or 1-800-525-6285
By far the best source of information about identity theft, how to prevent it, and what to do should you become a victim or target, is the Federal Trade Commission website: www.FTC.org. Search “identity theft” and you will find volumes of useful information. You can also access this website at www.idtheft.gov.
And finally, it’s good to keep these thoughts in mind:
There is nothing special about you that would cause a perfect stranger to pick you, out of millions of people, to receive anything.
You did not enter a sweepstakes last year that you have forgotten about. You don’t have to make up your mind right away. You have NOT won a valuable prize or a free vacation. If you can’t see it in print, it doesn’t exist. And, if it just seems too good to be true…..it is.
1 2011 Identity Fraud Survey Report, Javelin Strategy and Research (2011)