Your private life may not be so private. Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personal identity, like your name, Social Security number, or credit card number, without your permission, to commit fraud or other crimes.
How does your identity get stolen? More sophisticated than pocket pickers, identity thieves can use some of the following techniques:
- Lurking around automatic teller machines and phone booths in order to capture PIN numbers by watching through binoculars as the numbers are being entered, or by casting a watchful gaze over someone’s shoulder. Travelers are favorites targets.
- Stealing mail from mailboxes or re-directing mail in an effort to collect credit cards, bank statements, credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers, tax information, or other personal data.
- Illegally obtaining personal credit reports.
- Setting up telemarketing schemes to elicit account numbers from unsuspecting consumers.
- Accessing personal information accidentally sent to the wrong fax number, email address or voice mailbox.
- Scavenging through the garbage in search of credit card or loan applications, employer’s files, and identifications/authentication data such as login IDs and passwords. Similarly, thieves can search erased computer disks for any retrievable data.
- Sending false messages on the Internet (“spoofing”) in an effort to collect private information.
- Sending email using someone else’s computer or email address.
- Using various software programs such as “signal analysis” and “sniffer” programs to intercept financial data, passwords, addresses or other personal information being sent over networks.
- Breaking into computer systems and gaining access to personal data. These identity thieves can then sell the information or use it to open fraudulent accounts.
Here’s how to guard against it:
- Give your social security number out only when necessary. Ask to use other types of identification when possible.
- Order your credit report from the three main credit reporting agencies (listed at the bottom) once a year to verify information found on them. Check for fraudulent accounts, false address changes and other fraudulent information. Report all errors to the credit bureau and have them immediately corrected.
- Keep items with personal information in a safe place. Make sure charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, financial institution checks and statements, expired charge cards, and credit offers you get in the mail are disposed of appropriately.
- Pay attention to billing cycles. Follow up with creditors if bills do not arrive on time.
- Before revealing personal identifying information, find out how it will be used and if it will be shared with others. Ask if you have a choice about the use of your information: can you choose to have it kept confidential.
- Minimize the identification information and the number of cards you carry to what you actually need. If your ID or credit cards are lost or stolen, notify the creditors by phone immediately, and call the credit bureaus to ask that a “fraud alert” be placed in your file. Also, remember these alerts last only seven years and must be renewed.
- Carefully review all bank and credit card statements, cancelled checks, phone and utility bills as soon as you get them. Report any discrepancies immediately. If any regularly expected statements do not arrive on time, contact both the post office and your creditors to ensure that your mail isn‘t being redirected to another location.
- If you have applied for a credit card and it hasn’t arrived on time, contact the bank, credit union, or credit card agency involved. Report all lost or stolen cards right away.
- Do not provide your address in conjunction with the use of your credit card. Your checks should not have your driver’s license number pre-printed on them. It is illegal for businesses to record your credit card number on checks.
- Avoid giving out your credit card number or other personal information over the telephone unless you have a trusted business relationship and you have initiated the call. In particular, do not provide personal information over unencrypted wireless communications such as cordless or cellular telephones. Even baby monitors can broadcast your personal communications to eavesdroppers.
- PINs and Passwords should never be written down or revealed to anyone.
- If you find that your personal information has been placed on an online directory or a searchable database, try to have it removed.
- Do not create online profiles containing your personal information – it could be used by someone else to impersonate you.