Protecting Your Good Name From Identity Theft
It used to be that a ‘bad guy’ was someone who stole your wallet to get the cash you had to go see a movie on Saturday night. Today, criminals don’t need the wallet anymore – they just need the information.
Once an identity thief has your personal information they have access to your life. With the information they steal, they can become you. How you ask? The information they take can lead to the depletion of your financial accounts, a driver’s license with your name but someone else’s picture, new credit cards, and sometimes vehicle or home loans – all in your name and affecting your credit, none of which you know anything about until it’s too late. It could take years before you discover the problem and then years to fix it. And, in the meantime, you could be denied credit or even lose a job opportunity because your credit history isn’t just about you anymore.
Identity theft is a growing problem in today’s economy to the tune of billions of dollars in fraud. Taking precautions with your personal information can help you avoid becoming a victim, and protect your good name.
To understand what precautions you could easily take, it’s best to understand how identity theft occurs. According to the Federal Trade Commission, skilled identity thieves may use a variety of methods – low- and hi- tech to gain access to your personal information and take over your life. They can access your information by stealing your wallet or purse containing your identification and credit cards. They steal your mail and go through it looking for bank statements or pre-approved credit card offers. They steal your trash and look for those same credit card offers that you have tossed out or other personal information that can help them become you. They apply for jobs with companies that have access to your personal information. They scam you over the phone or by email and trick you into revealing your banking information with promises of vacations, lower interest rates, and other ‘too good to pass up’ gimmicks that just require some money down to take advantage of the opportunity. Yeah, take advantage is right!…of you!!!
Is it possible to prevent identity theft entirely? No. But some common sense and caution can go a long way. Things that you can do today:
Check your credit report. According to local authorities, this is the most important step you can take. If you haven’t gotten a credit report in the last year, it’s time to make sure your financial past (and present) are in order. Make sure it’s accurate and includes only those activities that you have authorized. If you are a resident of Maryland, you are eligible for one FREE credit report a year from each of the three major credit bureaus. It is very important that you exercise this benefit. It not only protects your identity, but your future borrowing status. Verifying your credit report annually should be sufficient, but if you insist on an extra level of protection – the credit bureaus offer a credit protection service for a fee. It’s possible to have the credit reporting agencies code your account for fraud protection for a fee. Contact the bureaus by accessing their websites. Please note, by doing this you will be unable to apply for a credit card or other loan without notifying the credit reporting agencies prior to establishing new credit – your application could be denied if you do not contact them first, the alert is only for a limited time and has a fee attached. Please refer to the article A Healthy Credit Report in this section for more information about how your credit affects you and for contact information for the reporting agencies.
Be tight-lipped about you. The cashier at the local grocery store DOES NOT need your phone number! Nor do they need your social security number for identification purposes. Lots of companies (like your employer, financial institution, and health care provider) have legitimate reasons to have that information, take time to ask yourself – is this one of those companies? When in doubt, decline to share that information, if it is truly necessary – they’ll let you know. Don’t give out ANY personal information over the phone or internet unless you have initiated the call and can verify the validity of the merchant with a respected source. (Returning a phone call does not a valid merchant make. You should require more proof they are who they claim they are, and if they get antsy about it – disconnect!)
Shred, it’s not just for cheese anymore. Invest in a shredder and don’t just tear up those credit card offers – turn them into Swiss cheese. Do the same with expired credit cards, old receipts, and anything else that may have personal information on it or be used to obtain your information or identity.
Financial statements and billing cycles. Pay attention to your billing cycles. Note them in your records. Follow up with creditors if your bills don’t arrive on time.
Check your monthly financial statements, including credit card statements. Save your receipts to verify the charges and/or deposit and withdrawal information are only the ones you authorized. Verifying their accuracy also verifies the statements have been received.
Ordering checks. Personal checks having your name and address pre-printed on them is sufficient. Driver’s licenses and social security numbers are not recommended to be pre-printed on your checks.
Mail call. Don’t put outgoing mail in your home mailbox with the flag up, that invites trouble. Instead, drop them into a secured post office box. If you’re traveling, stop your mail or count on a trusted neighbor.
Ask. Ask your service providers how your personal information will be used. Many companies must comply with privacy laws, and should have their policy available for your review. Ask you financial institutions to establish your account number as a non-social security number. All financial institutions should have this capability. The only drawback is having to remember yet another number. The benefit is every time you access your account, someone does not get acquainted with your social security number.
Ready. Set. Go. Carry only the identification and credit cards you need. Whether traveling to a foreign land or just going to the mall take ONLY what you’ll need. Leave your social security card and the extra credit cards at home. Have a secure place to keep the cards you don’t need and develop a routine to make sure you don’t have too much information with you. Keep records secured; especially if you share your living arrangements or work where there is public access. Be mindful that what’s yours does not become theirs.
Be wary of promotional scams. Anyone who wants a deposit, credit card or financial account information to qualify for a prize or gift is trying to rip you off. Remember be tight-lipped about you.
Computer bytes. When it comes to computers – use caution, invest in computer virus protection and update regularly. Only open attachments and hyperlinks from people you know and are familiar. Don’t use automatic log in features on your laptop or palm – password secure them. Look for website privacy policies.
Pssst. Use passwords whenever possible; on your cell phone, credit cards, financial accounts, and email access. Contact the service department of these vendors (and any others that you can think of) and ask them to place a password on your account. The password could be for access to the product or service, or for a representative to verify your identity before discussing or conducting business on the account.
ATM safety. If you use ATMs, develop a routine for when you take your card out and when you place it back in its designated spot so you do not leave your card in the machine. Make sure the routine is not only for your card and cash, but for security. Get in the habit of looking around too, and only use well lit ATMs.
Following some of these steps won’t guarantee that you will not become a victim of identity theft, but anytime you can take preventive steps to protect your good name it’s worth it. If you order your credit report and need assistance deciphering what it says, please contact a loan department representative. For more information on identity theft, log onto to the Federal Trade Commission’s website www.ftc.gov.
Who to call if you become a victim….
- The Police. File a police report; many financial institutions require a police report.
- Motor Vehicle Administration
- Social Security Fraud Hotline 1-800-269-0271
- Credit reporting agencies fraud divisions
Experian (TRW) 1-800-397-3742
Trans Union 1-800-680-7289
- Financial institutions and credit card companies
- Federal Trade Commission 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338)
If you have been a victim of identity theft, please contact the Credit Union so your account can be coded accordingly.