The mailbox full of holiday bills that many people received in January probably was a lure for some identity thieves, but there are many other lures. People can cut their risk of being victims of such thieves year-round by taking some basic steps and adopting a few important habits, security experts say.
It's important to understand, they say, that ID theft evolves as quickly as law enforcement and consumers find new ways of fighting back. For example, the Federal Trade Commission has reported that one of the top ID theft scams involved offering federal stimulus money in exchange for financial information. Thieves also are getting younger since young people are the earliest adopters of the latest computer and online skills.
What can you do? Here are some ideas:
Change your online record-keeping behavior. If you download bank or credit activities to Quicken or Microsoft Money, don't store passwords on that software. That might slow you down, but take the time to type in that access data, and then log off as soon as you've completed your transactions and close the browser, too. Never put this data on a wireless-enabled computerID thieves lurk in coffeehouses and other public places to capture data that's traveling through the air. Confine these activities to the desktop and secure terrestrial Internet connections.
Put a lock on your mailbox. If you work long hours or are otherwise not available to grab your mail as soon as your postal carrier drops it off, either install a high mail slot on a door with a strong lock, so a thief can't reach in and grab mail that's fallen on the floor, or install an outdoor mailbox with a key lock on it that only you can open. Also, talk to your bank or check printer about secure ways to receive delivery of printed checks. ID thieves have stepped up theft of checks because many people are not being granted checking accounts in this tough economy, and stolen account numbers are being used fraudulently.
Shred or cut up any receipts or credit and account documents. A strong, safe paper shredder really is a good investment. You should shred credit solicitations, receipts you're not keeping for tax time, line-of-credit checks that come in your monthly credit-card bills (you shouldn't be using those checks anyway), and tax- or investment-related evidence for prior-year returns your tax adviser says you no longer have to keep.
Above all, guard your Social Security number. Never give it out unless you are dealing with a recognized financial institution that you trust. Never put it on a check or type it into an online form.
'Phishing' is still an issue. Scam artists phish by using fraudulent messages, phone calls, or any kind of communication to get you to divulge your Social Security number, your account numbers, your address, or other personal information under the guise of a legitimate company you already might be doing business with. They'll get your attention by saying there's a problem with your account you have to address immediately. Online, the scams are so sophisticated you'll see e-mails that look exactly like the ones your bank, credit card, or even airline mileage club would send you, right down to the logos and disclaimers. Anytime anyone asks you for personal information, use your own account customer service numbernot the one on the mailingto speak to a live person to verify that the request is real.
Change your passwords occasionally. If the only user name and passwords you can remember are your e-mail address and your dog's name, you need to develop a schedule for changing those passwords and storing that information in a safe place off of your computer.
Watch the social networking. Whether you're on a site like Facebook or LinkedIn or if you keep a profile on online dating sites or other group sites, be wary of what information you keep online and also screen your own posts for data that might identify where you live, how you save and spend, even when you're going on vacation. You're being watched.
Get each of your credit reports once a year. By law, you're entitled to free copies of your credit report from each of the three major credit rating agenciesTransUnion, Experian, and Equifax. Don't get them all at oncestagger them three to four months apart so you can see if erroneous data appears during the year.
Think twice about ID theft insurance. Some companies offer identity theft insurance that will cover lost pay if you have to straighten out your credit, but realize they will not do the dirty job of restoring your creditthat's up to you. And since many of the companies selling this insurance already are affiliated with the credit industry, that's good reason to pause. Also, check your home or renter's insurance policy to see if they provide ID theft coverage. Most important, be aware that some of the ID theft prevention marketers are scams themselves.
Be wary at tax time. It's a nearly a year until income taxes are due again, but individuals who pay quarterly should always be wary that ID thieves are watching paper returns and forms for Social Security numbers and other key data.
When using automated teller machines, stick with ones you know. Some of those independent ATMs you see in convenience stores, restaurants, and bars might be collecting your data for illegal use. Use ATMs only at established banks.
Watch your wallet, cell phone, and laptops. ID thieves can hit you the old-fashioned wayby taking your stuff when you're not looking. Keep only a few necessary items in your wallet and regularly clean out receipts and other data that would identify you.
It's a good idea to keep a photocopy of the contents of your wallet in a safe place for quick reference should a theft occur. This is extremely important when you're leaving the country. Include a copy of your passport as well. Leave one copy at home with a reliable person who can fax or e-mail it to you or an embassy. Never leave a laptop sitting in a public place, and always secure your laptop with a password. Keep in mind that an Internet- and address book-equipped cell phone is a potential gold mine. ID thieves will not only get your information, they'll be able to try and rip off all your contacts.
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