Steps you can begin taking immediately to prevent identity theft!
Identity Theft is real, but don’t fall for the over-hype some companies use to sell you pricey services. The following steps can secure your identity for less. Identity theft is on the rise… again! After trending downward for the past four years, 11 million consumers were hit by this crime just this past year. According to Javelin Strategy and Research out of California, that’s a record. They have surveyed 5,000 adults every year since 2003 and announced that the jump is partly a result of the recession, when fraud tends to spike, but signing up for expensive services offered by credit-reporting bureaus and other companies is not a necessity to keep one’s identity secure. Most of these unnecessary services and products are not needed and are ineffective or simply duplicate what you can do for yourself – and for free.
Here’s how you can go about protecting yourself.
1. Don’t Get Scared – Get Serious
Granted, there are tons of horror stories out there, but you don’t have to get freaked out when you hear one. Keep in mind it’s not a common occurrence where someone opens new credit card accounts or commits other crimes using your name, Social Security number or other information. Less than 1% of all U.S. households have had this happen to them recently according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Justice, and one half of that group resolved the problem, usually from one day to two weeks.
The most common form of ID theft has been around for many years and that is credit card fraud and check kiting, with someone fraudulently accessing your credit or debit card account; it’s not what most people even consider ID theft. And, in most cases, your liability is legally limited. The credit card issuers and / or banks pay the direct losses, not you. Few victims suffered out-of-pocket costs last year and those who did lost only $373 on average. That’s one half the amount lost in 2007, according to Javelin. That’s well below the $1 million to $2 million guarantees that many identity-theft protection services tout to suggest that your losses could be catastrophic. You can protect yourself by taking these low-tech, common sense precautions.
a. Never give your Social Security number or other personal information to (anyone) who might call, sent you a text message or email, even if they appear to be legitimate. For the most part they are “phishing” messages that are designed to look as if they are coming from your bank or credit-card company. Never write your Social Security number on your checks, applications for non-credit purposes or other forms. The only exception is if you are sending a check to the IRS.
b. Never leave your purse or wallet unattended. Never carry your Social Security card with you and never write your PIN numbers or passwords on anything inside your purse or wallet, much less the card itself.
c. Keep and maintain all your medical records, financial account information and tax filings in a secure place at your home. Be especially careful if you have workers or other persons inside your home. Once you no longer need any of these type documents, shred them.
d. Social media sites such as Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and others have become very popular of late. These sites are ripe for criminals who are looking for your personal information such as your pet’s name, your mother’s maiden name, your birth date, etc. Please be mindful about publishing any personal information like this on social media sites, because this type information is often used for verification of your identity and could allow someone access to your accounts.
e. If your bank or credit card company offers free online or media alerts that warns one of suspicious activity regarding your account, you should sign up for them. These type alerts are different from the expensive credit monitoring services that companies are trying to sell you; that you don’t need. You should also go online and check all your accounts at least once per week just to give yourself peace of mind that your accounts are all in order and have not been compromised.
2. Security Freezes and Fraud Alerts
You can virtually stop identity thieves before they can cause any damage by placing a security freeze on your credit reports with all 3 major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and Transunion. This will prevent anyone from looking at your credit report with the exception of companies that already have a financial relationship with you and certain government agencies and any others that might be exempt. Simply to each credit bureau’s website and search for the security freeze link.
If a lender is unable to pull your credit report, it’s not very likely to grant new credit to someone else in your name, therefore, a security freeze is an excellent deterrent against fraud. But like all deterrents, it is not fail safe. Keep in mind that some lenders will give credit without pulling a credit report.
If you should notice a sign of identity theft and you have not placed a security freeze, you should immediately place a fraud alert with the credit bureaus. This typically remains in place for 90 days after which you should request a security freeze.
A prospective lender is supposed to recognize a fraud alert on your credit file and therefore should call you to find out if the application is legitimate. Filing a fraud alert is appropriate anytime your identity might be compromised. A compromise could be considered if you should have your purse or wallet lost or stolen, loss of your cell phone, stolen computer or if your home or vehicle broken into. More subtle warning signs could be noticing unauthorized charges on your credit card statement. When using your credit card at restaurants, keep in mind that this is one of the few times your credit card is away from your view. It’s a known fact that (some) waitstaff carry small concealable credit card readers and can easily and quickly scan your personal information from the magnetic strips on your credit card. That information is then used or sold by the waitstaff.
Fraud alerts are free, but security freezes can cost $5 to $10 per person per credit bureau each time you place one, depending on the state law in your state. However, if you’re a victim of identity fraud, freezes usually are free. A freeze should be initiated with each credit bureau, however, if you’re placing a fraud alert, you only need to inform one bureau as that bureau will then pass requests to the other 2.
3. See That Your Devices Are Secure
Most of us today use our computers for accessing the Internet. If this is your case, you should know that your computer should be secure against outside forces trying to access your computer. In this regard, you should insure that your computer has a firewall, updated anti-virus, anti-spyware, anti-phishing software, strong passwords, etc. You should also insure that all your protections are updated on a regular basis. You should also insure that your other devices, such as smart phones, tablets, portable flash drives are encrypted and fully protected as well.
4. Do You Have An Identity Theft File
Identity theft today is unfortunately, a fact of life. It’s a good idea to establish a folder for filing certain documents and information and keep in a secure place. This folder should include credit reports, security freeze alerts, documents and passwords, any security breach notices and potential identity theft evidence, such as mail to your address in someone else’s name. This is also the place to file photocopies of the contents of your wallet; front and back of your driver’s license, credit cards, debit cards, etc.
5. Review Personal Data Files
Under the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, you’re entitled to one free copy of your credit report every year from each of the 3 major credit reporting bureaus. Stagger your requests so that you’ll get your file from one of them every 4 months. Then check your reports for any items that you don’t recognize, such as accounts, judgments, liens, collections, bankruptcies or other possible clues to identity theft. Dispute immediately, any item(s) that are erroneous and fraudulent. You can order your free reports at www.annualcreditreport.com.
6. Stop Unsolicited Credit Card Offers
One of the easiest ways your name is stolen is by stealing pre-approved credit card offers from your mailbox. A person wanting to steal your mail is by watching your mailbox and when your mail is delivered, they can easily steal it. Another way is if you’re mailing something, once you raise that little red flag on your mailbox, it tells a crook that you are sending mail. The crook can then assume you’re making a credit card payment. Another method crooks use is your trash. You get an unsolicited credit card offer and tear it up and toss it in your trash. You set your trash out the night before it’s due to be picked up. Crooks watch for this. They can then drive by at 3:00 in the morning and steal your trash and they find all sorts of useful information including bank statement, medical records, credit card statements, etc. They have just hit the mother lode.
So as not to help the crooks steal your identity, contact the credit bureaus by going to www.optoutprescreen.com. Opting out should stop most offers, and it’s free.
Instead of mailing your bills from home, drop your mail off at the U.S. Post Office. If you’re home during the day, you can watch for your mailman to drop off your mail and remove it from your box right away. Or, you could consider renting a box at the U.S. Post office to receive your mail.
7. Monitor Your Accounts Often