Identity theft is a growing problem. It can result in a ruined credit record and even the loss of your life savings.
Be Alert to the Danger of Identity Theft
Keeping Your Name Clear
Many people think it’s a problem that could not happen to them. But even if you are careful about storing personal papers securely, there are many ways an identity thief can get information. For example, making a change of address to divert your mail, rummaging through your trash, or posing as someone who has a legitimate need for information, such as a landlord or a creditor.
With the data in hand, the thief is then free to, among other things, change the mailing address on your credit card account and run up charges; open a new credit card account in your name and not pay the bills, establish phone or wireless service; open a bank account and write bad checks; file for bankruptcy under your name, and buy cars using a loan.
You don’t have to be a victim. Here are some of the precautions you should take to prevent the horror of identity theft:
Place passwords on your credit card, bank and phone accounts. Don’t use information such as your mother’s maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security Number or phone number, or any series of consecutive numbers.
Carefully secure personal information in your home.
Order a credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus once a year. This can help you catch mistakes and fraud before they wreak havoc on your personal finances.
Don’t give out personal information over the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you’ve initiated the contact or are sure who you’re dealing with.
Put mail in collection boxes or drop it off at your local post office, rather than leaving it in your own mailbox for pickup. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox. If you’re planning to be away from home, ask the Post Office for a vacation hold.
Tear or shred charge receipts, credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, expired charge cards and credit offers before throwing them in the trash.
Don’t carry your Social Security card. Give out the number only when necessary. Don’t get it printed on checks. Try to use other forms of identification.
Carry only the identification and credit and debit cards that you actually need.
Contact creditors if your bills don’t arrive on time.
Use first initials on checks rather than your full first name. Sign your checks with initials rather than your full name. The bank will have this on record and the fraudster won’t know that’s how your real checks are signed.
Be suspicious of correspondence from your bank or the IRS. In one scam, the promoters sent out fictitious bank correspondence and phony IRS forms in an attempt to trick the recipients into disclosing personal and banking data. The thieves then used the information to impersonate the recipients and gain access to their finances. “Genuine IRS forms do not ask for sensitive personal and financial data except in very special circumstances,” the IRS notes.
Photocopy both sides of the contents of your wallet. This gives you a record of anything that might be stolen, as well as the account numbers and phone numbers to call so you can cancel.
If you find yourself the victim of theft, take these steps immediately:
- Cancel your credit cards.
- File a police report in the jurisdiction where the crime took place.
- Call the three national credit-reporting organizations immediately to place a fraud alert on your name and Social Security number. After that, any company checking your credit will know your information was stolen. They will have to contact you by phone to authorize new credit. (See box at the top of the article for the numbers to call.)
With a bit of vigilance, you can save yourself the upheaval, stress and potential losses that happen when a person’s identity is stolen.