Identity theft is the fastest-growing crime in North America. It’s a boon for criminals because so many businesses and individuals have a careless, “can’t-happen-to-me” attitude toward the crime. During the holiday season, with all the shopping, parties and travel involved, ID theft is an even bigger issue.
Here are 12 steps from the book “Identity Theft: How to Protect Your Name, Your Credit and Your Vital Information...and What to Do When Someone Hijacks Any of These (2004).”
1. Realize that anyone can be the victim of identity theft. You don’t have to be wealthy or have a high credit score to have your identity stolen. In fact, some ID thieves say that middle-class people are the best targets-because they pay less attention to their financial accounts than rich people (or rich people’s accountants) do.
2. Keep your Social Security number private. This is the key piece of information that identity thieves seek, because it’s the basis of most consumer credit transactions in the U.S. Don’t allow your Social Security number to appear on checks or ID cards. Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet or purse-keep it in a secure place at home. Don’t give your Social Security number over the phone. If anyone asks for your Social Security number as proof that you are who you say you are, give them only the last four digits.
3. Manage your checking accounts carefully. The second most desirable item to a thief is a personal check (some ID thieves steal mailboxes, just to look for checks). Keep the information on your checks to the bare minimum...your name only, if possible. Avoid writing checks in retail stores or other public places. Don’t keep extra cash in the checking account that you use for paying monthly bills.
4. Don’t carry too much plastic. Few people-even wealthy ones-need more than 3 or 4 credit cards. If you have more than this, your financial information is in enough databases that your risk of ID theft is increased. And avoid frequent balance transfers; this can hurt your credit...and it’s also an activity that can draw attention of crooked insiders at credit card companies.
5. Use credit cards as little as possible. Try not to become dependent on credit cards for daily transactions. Use cash in restaurants and retail stores as much as you can. Designate certain cards for certain uses (for example, use one card for all online purchase, one for travel, one for gas and car expenses).
6. Stick to ATMs at your bank or other banks that you recognize. Avoid unfamiliar or “stand-alone” ATMs. In some cases, these machines are simply not secure; in others, ID thieves may manipulate the machines to keep your account information.
7. Read your statements. Don’t just check the balances on your bank accounts and pay the amounts due on your credit accounts. Set aside a few hours each month and actually go through the statements. Keep as many receipts as you can and reconcile them with what’s in your statements. (Even a partial reconciliation can find problems.) Look for wrong amounts, duplicate transactions and transactions in strange places or times. Smart ID thieves start by making a few small transactions to “test” an account for more and bigger frauds later.
8. Avoid co-signing loans for friends or family members. Finance companies often encourage friends or family members to co-sign or co-borrow loans for people with no or poor credit histories. This is a great deal for the lender-but a bad one for the co-signer. Your risks are two-fold: The friend or family member can steal your identity...and the staff at the bank or car dealership know that you’ve got good enough credit to be helping someone else. If you want to help, lend as much cash as you can afford. This way, the most you can lose is the amount of the loan.
9. Never give personal financial information over the telephone to someone who has called you. Even if the person seems to be someone you know or from your bank or credit card company, insist on getting a return number and calling them before you give out information. And, when you do, only give out the last four digits of your social security number, credit card number or bank account number. Anyone who’s actually working for a finance company should have your information already and be able to confirm your information with partial numbers.
10. When you’re doing business over the Internet, look for security features before you give any personal information on a Web site. You can recognize a secure page by the prefix “https” in the universal record locator (URL) at the top of your browser; you can also establish a legitimate site by checking its “secure certificate” which should be on the site and issued by a recognized organization.
11. Don’t worry about coming across as difficult or uncooperative. With so much business done on-line and over the phone, banks and other financial institutions work hard to make their services “user friendly.” This sometimes translates into lax information security standards. Your “difficulty” may just be a proper response to a store’s lazy approach.
12. Understand that ID thieves are opportunistic and they cast a wide net. If they sense any difficulty in getting your information, they will move on to the next potential victim. Your strategy should be to make yourself just hard enough to rob that the thief will pick on someone else.
When it comes to preventing identity theft, there’s a good analogy in the anti-theft “club” devices that people put on the steering wheels of their cars. A dedicated thief can get past the club if he or she wants to-but most thieves aren’t dedicated. They’re opportunistic. Rather than taking the extra couple of minutes required to get past your anti-theft device, they’d rather move to the next car that doesn’t have one an save the added hassle. Take the same approach to protecting your financial identity.