Protect Yourself From Identity Theft
Here are some ways to cut your odds of becoming a victim...
"When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the Lord doesn't work that way, so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me."
–Emo Philips, Comedian
How to read this month's Visa bill:
Emo was kidding. But a lot of folks are willing enough to pilfer your wheels and just about anything else that isn't locked down. In the Internet age that includes your identity, which can be among the most frustrating and costly possessions to replace.
All an enterprising thief needs is a computer or phone along with your Social Security number and credit card information, and they can easily pose as you on a shopping spree. They may even open new credit accounts, max them out, default and destroy your credit before you know what hit you.
Everyone is vulnerable. Young parents must guard not only their own information but their children's as well. In one common scheme the bad guys get a newborn's Social Security number and open, and abuse, credit accounts for years before anyone notices. Just try setting that record straight. Believe me; the government doesn't make it easy.
Older folks, less accustomed to the online world, are often tricked out of their information through sophisticated phishing scams. So tell Mom and Dad. One that's been around a while is a remarkably authentic AOL pop-up asking for updated information within 24 hours. A newer scam is where the bad guys pose as court officials threatening your arrest for failure to serve jury duty unless you immediately confirm your ID with a Social Security number and schedule time to do your civic duty. It works way too often.
Identity theft has been in growth mode since the birth of e-mail. There isn't a lot new to say about it. But right now-as your January and February statements filter in-is the time to be most alert. Thieves crawl out of their holes en masse every December to take advantage of the seasonal crush of commerce. They troll malls looking over shoulders at the check-out counter. They bribe cashiers. They rummage through the trash.
Some 9 million consumers fall victim each year as thieves ring up a collective $57 billion in fraudulent charges. In most cases, banks end up eating the losses-but not always. It can take years to clean up the trail of an identity thief and repair your credit rating. So take a good look at your bills over the next few weeks. I've been doing just that, and found hundreds of dollars of bogus charges on one card. Ouch. They got me.
Even though the busiest season for ID theft is over, you are vulnerable year round. Here are some ways to cut your odds of becoming a victim:
- Check your credit report regularly. Contact one of the three credit bureaus every four months, rotating among them, and request your free annual report.
- Shred unused credit offers before throwing them away. This also applies to credit card or bank statements, canceled checks and other documents that have account numbers or other personal information. A shredder costs as little as $15.
- Don't carry your Social Security card in your wallet. (In case you lose it.)
- Never reveal credit card numbers, social security information, mother's maiden name or PIN numbers-by phone, Internet or mail-unless you initiated the contact.
If you believe your ID has been swiped, the American Financial Services Association Education Foundation recommends these steps:
- Place a fraud alert in your credit file. Contact the three national credit reporting bureaus: Equifax (1-800-525-6285), Experian (1-888-397-3742) and Trans Union (1-800-680-7289). A fraud alert tells any company checking your credit file that your information was stolen, preventing the identity thief from opening additional accounts.
- Contact your creditors. Cancel accounts that you think have been tampered with. It may be necessary to call utility companies and financial institutions where you have checking and/or savings accounts, in addition to credit card companies.
- File a police report. This should be done in the jurisdiction where the theft took place (if known) or where you live.
- Call the Federal Trade Commission's toll-free Identity Theft Hotline: 1-877-438-4338. The FTC puts your information into a secure consumer fraud database and may, if appropriate, share it with other law enforcement agencies and private entities.
Just one in 700 occurrences of ID theft is prosecuted. That's a compelling risk-reward ratio for any criminal. You'll have to look out for yourself.
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