There are many forms of identity theft and the term refers to any crime where someone obtains and uses another's personal information in order to commit fraud or deception, usually for personal financial gain. Along with technology has entire new ways to steal a person's identity, and whole new ways that we must employ in order to protect ourselves from falling victim to an identity thief.
Protecting Yourself from Identity Theft
Leaving your social security card at home and shredding or burning any personal information you throw in the trash, such as old checks and credit cards, bank account statements, paystubs, or anything that contains your social security number is still a good idea, but are no longer the only things that we must do to protect ourselves from identity theft. Computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices have made protection from identity theft something that we must now think about in our daily lives. Database hacks, shoulder surfing, spamming, scamming, and phishing are now popular ways for thieves to steal our personal information and take our money, stick us with their bills, damage our credit, and sometimes create a real mess for us to clean up.
Everyone knows not to follow links that are sent to them by someone they do not know, to keep spyware software on their computers, and not to visit websites that cause spyware alerts, but it isn't just your computer now that can be hacked to obtain your personal information. Healthcare providers, government agencies, and even your grocery may now have your information in web accessible databases where it can be hacked and your identity then stolen. So how do you keep your information secure when someone else is who has it? You may not be able to. But you can do some things to help protect yourself from identity theft in these situations.
- Regularly monitor your credit score. You can do this for free at Credit Karma or Mint. These sites also offer other services such as credit alerts, budgeting tools, and information about what affects your credit score and how you can improve it.
- Check your credit report at least once every 12 months. Get your free credit report every 12 months from the government website Annual Credit Report. Check your reports to make sure that all personal information on them is correct and then investigate any accounts or inquiries listed that you do not recognize.
- Open and read all of your mail, even if it looks like junk mail. Usually when a company or government database is hacked or a security breach has occurred and your information is contained in that database, you will get a letter letting you know about the security breach so that you can take the necessary steps to ensure that your information is not used to steal your identity. Sometimes, the letter will also come with an offer for free credit monitoring services for a period of time, which you should sign up for to easily stay on top of your credit and anything appearing on it that should not be.
Scammers are getting more and more creative as each new scam is made public and they must find another way to get your money or your identity. Common scams, some of which utilize phishing or spamming, include telling the victim they have inherited or won money in an attempt to get their bank account information, sending checks that are fake, forged, or drawn on closed accounts and asking the receiver to deposit it, then immediately wire part of the money to someone, in the hopes they will get the wired money before the victim and/or his or her bank realizes the check is no good, and sending fake emails to people asking them to follow a link and enter their bank or credit card information in order to verify their identity. These emails appear to be real and contain the bank or credit card company's logo, but the links take you to a site that belongs to the scammer so that they can steal your information once you enter it into the form and click submit. A few things you can do to protect yourself from these kinds of scams include:
- Verifying website addresses before entering personal information
- Remembering that no one will ever give you money to do something before you have done it
- Only giving personal information to those you contacted and who you know
- Providing personal information only on secure website connections (look for a little lock symbol to the left of the website address in your address bar)
- Calling financial institutions or other companies to verify that an email you received is actually from them
With the increased use of smart phones to do everything from checking bank account balances to paying at the drive thru, came a new way to steal personal information – shoulder surfing. This is when someone watches you use your phone over your shoulder, in order to steal any personal information you may enter into a website or app. To protect yourself from shoulder surfers, follow the same rules you would at an ATM; be aware of who is nearby, watch for anyone who may be standing behind you, and cover your keypad when entering account numbers, passwords, and PINs.
Fake Debt Collectors & Government Agents
Another way that scammers are stealing personal information from consumers is by impersonating debt collectors and government agents in an attempt to get credit card information. These scammers call and say that you owe money and ask you to give them your credit card information so that they can take a payment over the phone. Some may even claim to be a government agent, law enforcement officer, or work for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). They may threaten criminal charges, arrest warrants, or jail or claim that they will levy your bank account, take your personal property, or foreclose on your home if you do not pay. If you are contacted by someone claiming you owe money:
- DO NOT give them your credit card or check information, you will not be arrested for not paying a caller immediately
- Refuse to give out any personal information, such as your social security number or date of birth
- Verify only your name and address
- Ask the caller to mail you verification of the debt
Once you have requested debt verification, hang up and if they call again, do not speak with them. If the call is from a legitimate debt collector, they are required to mail you verification of the debt within five days of the initial call. The verification should include the name of the original creditor, the amount owed, and any proof that you owe the debt, such as contract or court ordered judgment.
Not So Old-Fashioned Thieves
Social media has become a hotbed of information that the patient and tech savvy identity thief can use to steal your identity or that of your loved ones. You most likely already share some personal information on social media that can be a good start for a patient thief. This includes:
- Your birthday (even if you do not intentionally share it, you may receive public birthday wishes from friend and family)
- Your mother's maiden name, if she is your friend on the social media site and is currently using it
- Your home address when you create events that you are hosting or post items for sale
- Information you may use in passwords such as your pets names, anniversaries, and favorite foods or vacation spots
This doesn't mean you have to stop sharing on social media sites, but you should check your privacy settings, be aware of what exactly you are sharing when you post, and never accept friend requests from people that you do not know.
If you are a victim of identity theft and are unable to correct any of the results of such theft, feel free to contact our office at 1-800-219-3577, for a free, no obligation consultation.