The information age has brought numerous innovations and advancements to our daily routine. Cell phones, computers, and the Internet have made many of life’s challenges easier and more accessible. However, just like every other moment in our collective history, new advancements offer opportunity for those who seek to harm you or steal from you to get at your money or your most private possessions, in this case, your identity.
So what is identity theft? Identity theft is the process of someone using an identity that is not their own for any type of service, transaction, or notification. Sounds fancy huh? Let’s break it down. If someone pretends to be you in order to buy, sell, claim, announce, advertise, promote, or steal then they are committing identity theft. Identity theft is more than just someone who stole your password to your Yahoo e-mail; it is a frustrating experience that often leaves the victims feeling hopeless and clueless on how to regain their identity, not to mention how to protect their assets. They can use your identity to open up a phone account in your name, defame another individual, or the dreaded credit card account in your name.
Let’s be clear here, identity theft is NOT a product of the information age, rather it has been accelerated because of the information age. Also, identity theft has proven successful for the scam artists out there. If stealing people’s identity wasn’t working for scam artists, then it would have faded away like other social fads. You must be proactive in protecting your identity, and if you find out that you have become a victim of identity theft, you must be prepared to fight long and hard to clean up and restore your good name. Don’t think identity theft is real enough for you to be worried about it? Consider this, 1 out of every 20 people is a victim of identity theft. Here are 5 proven tips that can help you fight off identity theft.
1) Dumpster diving – Identity thieves will often get your personal information by going through trash and other disposed items. It is probably one of the most common and easiest ways for identity thieves to steal your information. However, this threat can be eliminated with a little bit of due diligence. Buy yourself a paper shredder, and shred any documents you get in the mail that have any personal information on it. This includes your name and address. If you are internet savvy, you can stop financial statements from being delivered via the mail, like bank statements and utility bills. Check your mail regularly each day and send financial mail via the post office directly or drop off boxes, not from your mailbox. In other words, don’t put checks in the mail using your mailbox, scammers have been known to drive around and collect these personal identification items. Also, if you all of a sudden begin receiving no mail for several days in a row, you may have had an identity thief fill out a change of address form against your address.
2) Monitor your identity – Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to identity theft. In order to prevent identity theft or minimize its potential impact, you must be prepared to monitor your identity. That means, you must check every financial account you own at least once a month. This includes bank accounts, credit cards, and utility bills. Look for any activity that you didn’t authorize, no matter what the charge was. Identity theft can often start off as a $2.00 charge to your account, as scammers see if they can successfully use your identity. If you get notifications in the mail or your e-mail about accounts you didn’t setup, don’t just trash them, investigate and make sure that they are not yours. If you are denied credit or are getting calls from creditors, then you may have already been a victim of identity theft. Above all, contact each of the three credit agencies and get a yearly copy of your credit report. You can visit www.annualcreditreport.com, or call toll-free 877-322-8228 to receive your report.
3) Inventory your wallet or purse – Statistics say that 94.7 percent of Americans carry either a wallet or purse with them at all times. However, can you list out the exact contents of your wallet or purse? Because these items are of high value to identity thieves, you must be prepared to take action in the unfortunate circumstance that your wallet or purse is stolen. Go ahead and make that list today and keep it at home or at work. If your wallet or purse is stolen, make sure you call every agency responsible for the items on your list within the first 24 hours and begin steps to void out those stolen materials. This proactive approach will save you both the heartache of trying to remember what you have in your wallet and the headache of having your identity stolen. One more note, NEVER store your social security number on you. Memorize it and store it away in a safe location.
4) Phishing attacks – A phishing attack is when a scammer tries to acquire information from you by pretending to be someone they are not. Often times it can be associated with online scams, but that is not true in every case. For example, I was personally contacted 4 years ago by a “law office” claiming that there was a warrant issued for me in their state, and they wanted to confirm my social security number, address, and full name by phone to make sure I wasn’t the person being prosecuted. They sounded official enough, and gave a great speech. Unfortunately, “they” was actually a “he” and “he” was trying to use a phishing tactic to have me give up my personal information to him. I was wise enough to call their bluff and move on. Be on the lookout for these types of scams, especially in your e-mail. If you get an e-mail from one of your financial accounts or utilities, DON’T click on the e-mail, rather go directly to their site and then take any action you may need to take. Don’t forget, you have the right to call any of these companies directly and handle any business that may need attention verbally. Identity thieves that use phishing attacks are very skilled at making any e-mail look very legitimate, so don’t just assume because it has a logo on it, it is safe. Be cautious, this is your personal information we are talking about.
5) Recovery from identity theft – Ok, the reality is that even when you do everything, there is always a chance you could still have your identity stolen. What should you do then? First and foremost, you need to take charge of your personal identity and financial identity. Do not settle for excuses and don’t take no for an answer. You need to fight hard to reclaim and then clean your identity. A good place to start is with the government’s website on identity theft. Here you can find step by step instructions for what you need to do to recover from identity theft. You should ALWAYS file a police report, and submit that report to the three credit agencies. You should immediately place a fraud alert with the three major credit agencies and with any of your other financial accounts. You should immediately monitor family members’ identity closely for any chance of additional identity theft, especially your spouse’s and children’s. You should be less concerned with finding out who did this to you and more concerned with how they did this to you. Once you identify the reasons for your identity being stolen, takes steps to correct it and secure it going forward.
Identity theft is a scary event in one’s life. You can feel helpless and violated at the same time. Additionally, it is often a faceless crime, so you are left with more questions than answers. However, the good news is that you can reduce your identity theft risks by just taking some simple steps. Protecting yourself from identity theft is no different than protecting yourself from other crimes in life. If you use a little common sense, most problems can be avoided. You wouldn’t walk down a dark alley at 2 AM by yourself, so use that same common sense and take care of your identity.