It's in the newspapers every day and on the news every night. People worry that someone will run up charges on their credit card or fleece their bank account while their back is turned. There is reason to worry. All a thief needs is your Social Security Number to commit identity theft. This crime is relatively easy to commit, but investigating and prosecuting it is complex and time-consuming. But once you know the facts and some preventive measures you can take, you can win the fight against identity theft!
Identity thieves commit their crime in several ways
- They steal credit card payments and other outgoing mail from private, curbside mailboxes.
- They dig through garbage cans or communal dumpsters in search of cancelled checks, credit card and bank statements, and preapproved credit card offers.
- They hack into computers that contain personal records and steal the data.
- They file a change of address form in the victim's name to divert mail and gather personal and financial data.
- Make sure you know who is getting your personal or financial information. Don't give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you've initiated the contact or know who you're dealing with. If a company that claims to have an account with you sends email asking for personal information, don't click on links in the email. Instead, type the company name into your web browser, go to their site, and contact them through customer service. Or, call the customer service number listed on your account statement. Ask whether the company really sent a request.
- Never give out your Social Security Number. Treat it as confidential information.
- Be Wise About Wi-Fi. Before you send personal information over your laptop or smartphone on a public wireless network in a coffee shop, library, airport, hotel, or other public place, see if your information will be protected. If you use an encrypted website, it protects only the information you send to and from that site. If you use a secure wireless network, all the information you send on that network is protected.
- Commit all passwords to memory. Never write them down or carry them with you.
- When using an ATM machine, make sure no one is hovering over you and can see you enter your password.
- Take outgoing mail to post office collection boxes or the post office. Promptly remove mail that arrives in your mailbox. If you won't be home for several days, request a vacation hold on your mail.
- Shred receipts, credit offers, credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks, bank statements, expired charge cards, and similar documents when you don't need them any longer.
- When participating in an online auction, try to pay the seller directly with a credit card so you can dispute the charges if the merchandise does not arrive or was misrepresented. If possible, avoid paying by check or money order.
- Adopt an attitude of healthy skepticism toward websites that offer prizes or giveaways. Chances are, all that's been "won" is the opportunity to buy something you didn't want in the first place.
- Tell your children never to give out their address, telephone number, password, school name or any other personal information.