Fighting Identity Theft 101
I recently received yet another notice of the unauthorized access of my social security number. Since I live in California which requires disclosure of this information I have received notices from my bank, credit card companies, the government and the latest from a university I attended. As these notices remind me, there is no such thing as privacy these days and I must do whatever is in my meager power to protect my information. So I thought I'd share some of the steps I've learned of to protect oneself from identity theft and steps to take if one unfortunately becomes a victim.
To start, it cannot hurt to cultivate a bit of healthy paranoia offline as well as on. Family members and low tech thieves are often the culprits rather than online hackers.
1. Shred (with a cross-cut shredder) everything that has your name, address and any personal information.
2. Place outgoing mail into postal mailboxes and don't leave them in your own for the mail carrier to pick up.
3. Use gel ink pens to fill out paper checks so that thieves cannot wash and reuse them.
4. Do not give out your social security number unless absolutely necessary. It is necessary in situations where you are requesting credit be extended to you or when you are receiving income. It might make your life difficult but you don't have to give it out for identification purposes. For example, I no longer fill out that requested information at doctor's offices and I've only had to argue this twice in the past several years. If in doubt in other situations take some time to investigate whether or not giving the information is required or if there are alternatives.
Also, be wary of giving your drivers license - for example when car dealerships ask to make a copy before allowing you to take a test drive it's sometimes so that your credit can be checked while you're out.
5. Do not carry your social security card with you in your wallet.
6. Opt out of receiving pre-screened credit card offers at either optoutprescreen.com or at 1-888-5-OPTOUT. You will have to give your social security number to do this but it is OK to do so here.
7. Opting out only affects those companies who are trying to gain you as a customer, not those who already have you a customer. You'll have to contact companies you do business with directly to opt out of allowing them to "share" your information with other companies. Some companies make you do this every year so make sure you read the annual privacy notices financial companies are required to send you. Also, companies with whom you have an "existing relationship" are allowed to call you even if you sign up for the federal do not call list but you can request directly that they put you on their do not call lists.
8. Do not ever click on any link in an email that asks you to update information. Type in the URL yourself into your browser if you want to check your account.
9. Before you provide any sensitive information on a website look for an "https" url and a padlock in the lower right corner of your browser.
10. Protect your computer with firewall, anti-virus and anti-spyware software all of which can be purchased or found for free. Make sure you maintain subscriptions for updates or that you regularly check for them if subscriptions are not available.
11. Consider using credit cards rather than debit cards because there is some debate about the security and liability protections afforded by debit cards whereas the rules for credit cards are clear.
12. Check your credit reports regularly for free at annualcreditreport.com (bypass options to pay for credit monitoring unless that's a service you want). This is the "official" government mandated site and others are set up to sell you reports and services. Also, you will not get your credit score through this site, you have to visit myfico.com and pay for scores. Something to consider is pulling one free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus every four months so that you are continuously monitoring throughout the year. You can also purchase credit monitoring services from the credit bureaus.
13. If you live in a state that allows them, consider placing a credit freeze. A credit freeze prevents credit being opened up using your social security number unless you request that your account be opened up. This can be done when you're applying for a mortgage or other lines of credit. It will make it difficult for you to spontaneously open retail store accounts to get 10% off on a shopping spree. Those accounts are generally not great for your credit health so think carefully about how important it is to keep that option open to yourself.
If you are a victim, take these steps:
14. File police reports.
15. Close any compromised accounts.
16. Place a fraud alert on your account at each of the three major credit bureaus - Equifax, Experian and Trans Union.
17. Seek support. Here is a great post from The Consumerist from someone who has been a victim:
3) Breathe. You CAN get through this. It feels totally violating and nasty and it is. You will care a lot and other people will not care so much and no one seems to understand the enormity of what you feel. This too shall pass. Breathe. It really is one of those "no big deal" things until it actually happens to you but until then people just don't really care about the injustice of it all.
18. Consider supporting federal legislation which provides strong protection and does not lead to weaker protection than some states currently provide as lobbyists for credit card companies have consistently managed to water down proposed legislation with.
Here are several sites with additional information and resources: