Common sense is the best defense against identity theft – creating strong passwords for online accounts and monitoring personal credit reports and credit card statements are good, basic steps to take in safeguarding your personal identity. There are also other kinds of measures that can be taken that might not seem so obvious, such as opting out of pre-screened offers and investing in a lock for your mailbox.
Pre-screened offers, which contain personal information and a call to action that thieves could use to their benefit, can be stopped by calling 888-567-8688 or filling out a form at www.optoutprescreen.com.
“Tired of having your mailbox crammed with unsolicited mail, including pre-approved credit card applications?” asks an article titled “Stopping Unsolicited Mail, Phone Calls, and Email” on the Federal Trade Commission’s Web site.
“Fed up with getting telemarketing calls just as you’re sitting down to dinner? Fuming that your email inbox is chock-full of unsolicited advertising? The good news is that you can cut down on the number of unsolicited mailings, calls, and emails you receive by learning where to go to “just say no.”
As for the mailbox, it contains the equivalent of an oyster’s pearl for unscrupulous thieves – bank statements, credit-card information, medical bills and, during tax season, W-2 forms – and is a prime target for criminals. Nearly half of all identity theft originates there.
“Most people don’t lock their mailboxes,” according to an article in AARP The Magazine titled “She Stole My Life.” “You just pull out the prize…and leave the rest. Swiping mail from an unlocked box takes only seconds, but can yield a jackpot of private information….”
Once someone’s identity is stolen, a litany of problems ensues. Credit is ruined. Homes are foreclosed. Cars are repossessed. Crimes in the victim’s name are committed. Family finances are destroyed.
“The crimes that an identity thief is able to commit with your personal information range from applying for a credit card under your name before subsequently racking up prodigious charges to poaching your tax refund,” according to a WalletHub article titled “Identity Theft: What It Is, How It Happens & the Best Protection.”
Identity theft should be terrifying to all of us. It can cause the loss of many thousands of dollars and valuable time spent trying to repair and rebuild your identity. But, how prevalent is identity theft really and what can be done to curb the exposure?
Here are suggestions to help protect against the worst.
Shred sensitive documents
Besides investing in a lock for the mailbox, invest in a paper shredder. They are readily available at office stores and big-box retailers. Shredding will stave off trash hunters who go through the garbage looking for anything to steal.
Whether it is dumpster-diving thieves or just the careless trash person who allows an important document to fly out of the garbage bin, shredding goes a long way toward being a safe consumer.
Look for “https” on website addresses
That prefix for Web sites means they are safe and secure and unlikely to be hacked. When entering personal data online, do so only on https sites. And do not save your credit card information on websites when shopping. Sure, it makes it easier and faster to shop, but if that site is hacked, that ease of shopping can also be transferred to the hacker.
Refuse unsolicited requests
“Whether it’s someone showing up at your door, calling you on the phone, or sending you an e-mail asking for personal information, you shouldn’t respond if you didn’t ask to be contacted,” the WalletHub article states. “It can be difficult to verify that the person is who they say they are, and reputable companies don’t ask you to provide sensitive information. Tell them, “I do not give over the phone, but thank you” and hang up.
Use credit cards
All for credit-card companies, American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa, will not hold consumers liable for fraudulent charges, making those little pieces of plastic the safest way to spend. That is as long as you act responsibility and report lost or stolen cards; or report unusual activity on your cards.
John Farmer, a criminal-justice professor at the University of North Florida, stated in the article: “If your debit card gets compromised, a bad guy can drain your account. Although you’re probably going to get your money back eventually, in the meantime it’s gone. Whereas with a credit card, you don’t have any of your money tied up in the process.”
Things that never should be carried in a wallet (or a purse) include Social Security cards, birth certificates and passports, personal-identification numbers, checks and extra credit cards.
“If your wallet is stolen and you have eight credit cards in it, that means you will have to cancel eight credit cards, dispute with eight different card companies if fraud does occur, as well as reset any autopay you had for those eight cards,” Michael Bruemmer, of Experian, told GOBankingRates.com. “The more cards you carry, the more opportunities you are giving a thief to steal your money or information, and the more work you are putting on yourself to reestablish accounts after a theft.”
The mortgage on your house is held by ABC Bank, which is why you are surprised when receiving the foreclosure notice from DEF Bank.
Or, even worse, someone from a mortgage company comes to pin a foreclosure judgement on your front door; only to advise you are not the owner of the property.
Can’t happen? The FBI says it happens all too often:
- The con artists start by picking out a house to steal—say, YOURS.
- Next, they assume your identity—getting a hold of your name and personal information (easy enough to do off the Internet) and using that to create fake IDs, social security cards, etc.
- Then, they go to an office supply store and purchase forms that transfer property.
- After forging your signature and using the fake IDs, they file these deeds with the proper authorities, and lo and behold, your house is now THEIRS.
And it need not be your homestead; it can be a vacation home, a timeshare, or a rental property.
What can you do? Regularly check the courthouse for quit claim deeds or mortgages related to your property. Or, buy an owner’s title insurance policy. They are not as cheap as the one the mortgage company bought, but they can be worth their weight in gold.
It used to be a dangerous “physical” world out there. Now add to it a dangerous digital world.