It’s no secret that Identity Theft is the fastest growing crime in North America. Every year, millions of dollars in fraudulent transactions leave victims reeling in debt and financial uncertainty. It can seriously hurt your credit, cost you money, and create a trail of financial devastation and legal liability that may take years to unwind. But the good news is that you can be pro-active in protecting yourself.
It usually happens like this: First an identity thief obtains one or more items of your personal information, such as your social security number or mother’s maiden name or your date of birth, address, etc. Then-without your knowledge-the thief uses that very same information to commit one or more acts of fraud or consumer theft. Since, the identity thief is disguised as you, the trail of legal and financial liability then leads back to you.
Your Own Worst Enemy
Many victims should begin by looking in the mirror. We are often our own worst enemy by default. Sometimes we’re passive instead of proactive in asserting our privacy rights. For example, in a doctor’s office you might enter your private social security number on the new patient information form simply ‘because it’s on the form’. Yet neither the doctor nor the office staff intend to pay you any wages or subtract employment taxes from your earnings. They are there solely to provide medical service. Why should you give up your social security number to people who aren’t entitled to it?
On other occasions you might provide other important or confidential identifying information to strangers that normally you wouldn’t think of giving access to. Though not always, often people who ask for your social security number simply want your number for their own use and benefit – not yours.
There is no one ‘composite’ description of an identity thief. It might be an illegal alien who has entered the country and unlawfully uses your social security number to obtain employment, housing or consumer goods such as furniture or a car. It might be a terrorist who seeks to shield any true identity with the disguise of your name and personal information. The 9/11 terrorists had several pieces of identification in different names and addresses, and they used credit cards to pay for hotels, rental cars and airline reservations.
But not all identity thieves are terrorists. Most are clever and opportunistic thieves who steal identities or create documents based on real persons in order to facilitate lightning quick and often overwhelming financial crimes. Even though most identity thieves are motivated more by financial greed than terrorism, it doesn’t make them any less harmful. The point remains. Those are susceptible and vulnerable to identity theft are the ones who will suffer its financial consequences.
Be Proactive to Prevent Identity Theft
The key to protecting yourself from identity theft in the first place is to minimize the risk of loss due to identity theft before it ever happens. There are a lot of things you can do to be proactive in protecting yourself. In my book, 21st Century Privacy (Mt. Vernon Press) and in my workshops on Asset Protection and Wealth Preservation around the country, I provide a number of practical and very easy-to-follow guidelines for protecting yourself against Identity Theft. Among them:
Start by looking carefully in your wallet or purse. Do you really need to carry everything you have there? Do you need all those identification cards every day? Do you really need to carry your social security number around with you? Probably not – most people have it memorized. Also, you don’t need your birth certificate or passport – except when you have a specific reason to do so.
Double check to make sure your social security number isn’t shown on your driver’s license or your health insurance card.
When you’re talking to a stranger over the phone, be careful to limit exactly what information you provide them – especially if you didn’t initiate the call. They probably don’t need your date of birth or your mother’s maiden name or the name of your favorite hobby or your dog.
Don’t put your address on your keychain. Make it more difficult for a thief to tie you to a specific vehicle or to appear as the owner if they are apprehended later.
Keep in a secure place a list of all your credit card numbers, bank accounts and PINS (personal identification numbers) and long-distance calling cards. Don’t use information for passwords or pins that could easily be discovered by thieves – such as the last four digits of your SSN or your birth date or pet’s name.
Write ‘Ask for Photo ID’ near the signature line of your credit cards and insist that store clerks and others who receive your credit card ask for your photo identification. Compliment and thank them when they do so. It’s for your own protection.
Create passwords not easily detected by taking the first letters of the words from a favorite line of poetry, such as ‘TCJOTM’ for ‘The cow jumped over the moon.’
Protect your computer and financial passwords. Keep them safe and secure. Avoid keeping them in your wallet or purse or Palm Pilot. If those get lost, you are in for some inconvenience to start with, and maybe much worse if you’re not proactive.
Get on your state and/or the national ‘Do Not Call’ Registry. It’s easy. Just place a call to 1-888-382-1222 from the telephone number you wish to register.
Shred your old tax returns, bank or other account statements, credit applications, and other financially related forms once they’re no longer needed.
Get your free annual credit report from each of the consumer credit reporting agencies – and check it for anything that might be suspicious.
Be careful when filling out forms online. A lot of identity thieves engage in ‘phishing’ for information by asking you to restate account information over the Internet.
Consider changing the way you hold legal title to property, automobiles, investment accounts, etc. Perhaps you should consider moving title to your home into your Living Trust or move the name on your investment accounts over to a Family Limited Partnership that you control.What To Do If You Become a Victim
If your wallet or purse is lost or stolen, or if your home or auto is burglarized, or if you suddenly find yourself being billed for items you didn’t order, etc. you may have just become an Identity Theft statistic. In that case, don’t panic but you’ll need to take quick action. Here are some immediate steps:
Report the crime to the police immediately. Then get a copy of the police report to verify the crime with your bank, credit card and insurance companies. Distribute copies of the report to protect yourself from fraud.
Report the theft to your credit card companies on their toll-free line. The fraud departments of the credit card companies are very good nowadays and can be very helpful in helping you quickly protect yourself from unauthorized access.
Call the major consumer credit reporting agencies right away. Report the theft of your credit cards and ask that your accounts be ‘flagged’.
Order your credit report on a regular basis to monitor your identity for possible fraudulent activity.
Notify your banks of the theft. Speak to a representative of their fraud department ask them for their help. They can move your funds immediately to a new account number.
Ask that your bank issue you a new secret password that must be used in every future banking transaction. Put stop payments on any outstanding checks if you suspect fraud.
If you use an ATM card for banking services, get a new card, account number and password. Do not use the old password.
If you have a passport, notify the State Department passport office to be on the lookout for anyone ordering a new passport under your name.
Call your telephone, electrical, gas and water utilities. Alert them to the possibility that someone may attempt to open new service using your identification. Also notify your long distance carrier if it is a separate provider from your local phone service company.
You may want to change your driver’s license number if someone has been using yours as identification on ‘bad’ checks and credit. When requesting a new number from the Department of Motor Vehicles provide the DMV with a copy of the police report you filed.
Notify the federal Postal Inspection Service. They are located in the Federal Building and have one of the best responses to Identity Theft. Also notify the U.S. Secret Service, which also has an excellent service record in response to Identity Theft.
You may want to have your Social Security Number changed if your number has become associated with bad checks or fraudulent credit transactions. The Social Security Administration is sometime reluctant to allow the change, so you may need to be insistent and explain why you are taking this action. Provide a copy of the police report and any report you’ve provided with any other agency.
If your keys have been stolen, change the locks on your house and car immediately.