The internet is an incredibly powerful tool for sharing information, communicating, and learning, but it’s also an excellent resource that identity thieves use to obtain your personal information. Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the United States and nowadays most people don’t give a second thought to posting their full name, address, and phone number on popular social networks like Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter. After obtaining that information and a social security number or credit card number, it’s easy for identity thieves to open new lines of credit in your name, execute online purchases, or hack any of your online accounts. Without taking some precautions to minimize your risk you could become the next victim of identity theft.
My Experience As An Identity Theft Victim
I have personally been a victim of identity theft and understand the difficulties it involves. Shortly after the university’s employee and student database was breached by hackers last year I was notified by university officials that my personal information, including my social security number, was accessed by these internet criminals. I immediately contacted Experian to activate a fraud alert to prevent any new lines of credit from being established in my name. By activating the fraud alert, applications for lines of credit must be authenticated by contacting the individual in person and verifying their identity prior to awarding the new line of credit. This system works very well to prevent identity theft in which new lines of credit are created by the perpetrator. While it can be a bit of a hassle to activate your new credit cards or new mobile phone contracts when a fraud alert is in place, it’s much better than dealing with the hassle of resurrecting your credit after it’s been destroyed by identity thieves.
What a fraud alert doesn’t protect you against is credit card fraud. That is, thieves can still use your credit cards and bank debit cards to make online purchases. I learned this first hand about a month ago when my Visa debit card was fraudulently charged $34.84 by a company called Adipose Rx. Currently, the only solution to handling such problems is to report the fraud to the bank and close the debit or credit card. I did this and successfully recovered my funds but the closing of the debit card meant that I was without a debit card for 3-5 days prior to receiving the replacement debit card. I also had to change my forms of payment for each online merchant’s service I was using and register the new debit card once I received it. Thankfully I was able to track down each merchant and make sure they had the correct payment information without incurring any late payments.
It’s incredible to me in this day and age that the closing and reissuing of credit cards is the best solution our financial institutions can come up with. Then again, these are the same financial systems and banks that are partially responsible for the economic crisis we’re currently facing. Personally I think the perfect solution would be a transaction filtering system in which you can block certain merchants from charging your credit card. This would be something akin to the spam fighting system WordPress uses called Akismet where the community can collectively tag and submit spammers and prevent them from spamming other websites. If banks could give the credit card holders the ability to block certain merchants from making fraudulent charges it could drastically reduce the cases of credit card fraud and save the banks and consumers millions, if not billions, of dollars every year.
Protecting Your Identity Online And Offline
So how can you protect your identity on the web while still having an online presence? The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers some great helpful tips on how to protect yourself from identity theft. I summarized them below and added a few other identity theft protection tips in addition to safe online social networking practices.
- Guard your Social Security number – Keep your Social Security card in a safe place (not wallet). Don’t write it on your checks. Don’t use it as your drivers license number. Don’t use your Social Security number as your insurance policy number. Never give your Social Security number out to anyone over the phone, in the mail, or on the internet.
- Use your shredder – Destroy any trash that has your name and address on it. Call: 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688) to stop receiving credit offers in the mail. You will need to give them your Social Security number to do this.
- Secure your computer – Use computer security software (i.e. Kaspersky, Norton 360), keep operating systems, browsers, and software up-to-date.
- Use strong passwords that differ for each website – Using one password for every website is easy to remember but it’s very risky to do so. All it would take is for someone to access your email and find out all the services you use. From there, since you use a single password for all online accounts, it would be easy to access your banking account, credit card accounts, and other privately guarded information. I would suggest using a password manager and form filler like RoboForm (Windows) or 1Passwd (Mac) which can generate strong passwords for you, keep them safely stored, and protect you from keyloggers and phishing scams.
- Consider using an identity theft protection service – Lifelock submits fraud alerts on your behalf every 6 months to prevent thieves from opening any new lines of credit. They also scour the web for your credit card and social security card numbers to make sure no one is using them fraudulently. Other ID theft protection services include TrustedID, Identity Truth, ID WatchDog, Equifax ID Patrol, ProtectMyID, Identity Guard, ID Armor, Debix, and Intelius Identity Protect
- Watch out for phishing scams – Never trust emails that ask for personal or financial information and never click on the links within such emails. If you believe it’s a legitimate email message, type in the web address of the site directly into your browser. That’s the only way you know that you are indeed viewing the real website and not a phishing site. You can verify the authenticity of the email simply by obtaining a phone number from the real website or your financial records and calling them.
- Be safe when shopping online – Know who you are buying the item from and what it should cost, read the item’s description and the fine print, pay by credit card, print and save the receipt.
- Place a fraud alert on your credit reports – You can do this by calling one of the three credit bureaus and requesting a free fraud alert be placed on your credit report.
- Place a credit freeze on your credit reports – This locks down your credit report (until you remove it) to prevent anyone from accessing it except companies for which you already have an established relationship. You need to contact Experian, Equifax, or Trans Union to activate a credit freeze.
- Monitor your financial statements regularly – Review your banking statements on a monthly basis to identify unauthorized charges
- Setup email and SMS alerts through online banking – Most financial institutions now offer you the ability to set alerts online to notify you of a low balance or transactions greater than an indicated amount. These can be very helpful at quickly identifying fraudulent transactions.
- Check your credit reports – By law you are entitled to a free copy of your credit report every year upon your request. You can order your credit reports from all the credit bureaus by visiting AnnualCreditReport or by calling toll-free 877-322-8228. You should check your credit reports at least every year but most experts recommend that you check them 3 times a year. Check the accuracy of these reports to make sure you can account for each line of credit. If you suspect any fraudulent behavior you should contact one of the credit bureaus immediately to report it. If you want to check your credit reports, and you’ve already received your free annual credit report, you can purchase them from Equifax, Experian, or Trans Union. By the way, don’t use FreeCreditReport.com to obtain a free credit report; I checked my credit reports there last time and they, somehow without my knowledge, enrolled me in their Triple Advantage credit monitoring service.
- Check your credit score – Your credit score (aka FICO score) is not the same as your credit report and free credit reports obtained from Equifax, Experian, or Trans Union do not include your FICO score . FICOs are used by most U.S. banks to quantify the credit worthiness of a person. The higher your score the better your credit worthiness (FICO scores range from 300 to 850). You can obtain your FICO score and a credit report from myFICO.
- Consider using a credit monitoring service – These services generally offer you the ability to receive live access and updates about your credit reports as they change. Such services include Equifax Credit Watch and myFICO Score Watch.
- Consider obtaining identity theft insurance – Your homeowners policy may already cover you in the case of a stolen identity. Check your policy to see if this is true. Identity theft insurance may or may not be worth the investment. Make sure you understand exactly what the policy does an does not cover and take into account that the average cost incurred by a victim of identity theft is around $1500.
- Register your phone number on the National Do Not Call Registry – This will prevent telemarketers from calling to sell products/services as well as to solicit information about you and subsequently selling that information to third parties.
- Adjust your privacy settings for all your social networking accounts - Don’t share your personal information (i.e. address, phone number, email, marital status, date of birth, job info, etc.) with anyone in your social network that you don’t trust. Do this for Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, your Google Profile, and any other accounts and profile pages.
- Select tough security questions to verify accounts – Now days when you setup an online banking account or other online accounts there is usually a security question they ask you to fill out that helps verify that you are indeed the actual owner of the account. Sometimes it’s as simple as your pet’s name, your birth date, your mother’s maiden name, the make and model of your first car, your maid of honor or best man at your wedding, your first grade teacher, the last four digits of your social security number, the last four digits of your credit card on file, or your favorite color. I would strongly suggest you choose something that no one could ever know but you. You should especially not use information someone could obtain from your Facebook profile (i.e. birthday, pet’s name) or from a tweet you sent on Twitter. Remember, everything you say on Twitter is saved for posterity and searchable even if you delete it! Facebook notes and apps are notorious for logging personal information so give them a second thought when filling out those “How well do you know me” or “How well do you know X” kinds of quizzes. I imagine that many people submit answers to personal verification questions without realizing what their doing. There’s no telling what those app owners do with that information and how secure that data is kept.
- Register your full name on the most popular websites – It would benefit you to do this for major social networking sites, blogging websites, domains, and free web based email services as it prevents others from impersonating you and helps you control your name on the search engines. If your name has already been taken, add your middle name/initial or use an alternative that includes a dash or period. You should probably not display things like your date of birth and other personal info on your profiles as those are commonly used pieces of information that identity thieves can use to gain access to your accounts. It is especially not to do this if you incorporate such personal information into your passwords, which is a really bad idea. If you don’t have the time to register at all those sites yourself you can always have Knowem do it for you automatically. They will register your name at 120 popular websites for about $65.
- Monitor your name and reputation online – You can do this for free using Google Alerts by simply setting up an alert for your full name, versions of your full name (Jane Doe, Jane J. Doe, Jane John Joe), and username(s). Upon being indexed by Google, you will receive an email message with a link to the website where your name or username was used. You can also use StepRep, a free online reputation manager that’s more elaborate and useful than Google Alerts. If you want a more powerful way to not only monitor but actually control online reputations for yourself, spouse, or for your children and teenagers, check out ReputationDefender.
- Start a blog – This is a great way to boost your online reputation and take control of you name. There’s plenty of sites that offer free blogs (Blogger, WordPress, MovableType, TypePad). If you want to host your own, but don’t know how to set it up, I can install your WordPress blog for free. A well kept blog will rank high for your name, especially if the blog is titled in your name (janedoe.com). That advantage to ranking high for your name in Google allows you control the content about you. Thus when someone searches for you, they see good content about you from your own blog and not from someone else impersonating you. This is a great strategic tool for managing your online reputation.
- Taking down online imposters – When you encounter someone who is using your photo or pretending to be you on the web, contact the website’s owner and ask them to take the profile and your photos down.
- Don’t announce when you’re going to be out of town – Twittering or sending status updates about when you’re going to be on vacation is not such a bright idea. Doing so provides an excellent opportunity for someone to access your residence and steal important identification information as well as your valuables while your conveniently out of town. Having someone house sit for you, clearly displaying home security system insignia, keeping a dog at your house, and demonstrating activity inside your home are all great ways to keep burglars from targeting your place.
How Identity Thieves Get Your Personal Information
- Social networking sites – Websites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter are great sources for identity thieves to gain personal info about you such as date of birth, place of employment, your pet’s name, address, and phone number. Take caution when tweeting your vacation or posting your location online. This gives the ID thieves the perfect opportunity to steal your mail or break into your residence to gather your personal information.
- Fake employment ads – Identity thieves can create these in hopes that you fill out the job application and include your social security number or other information when asked.
- Mail theft – Make sure your mailbox is secured and no one else can gain access to it. Identity thieves can steal your mail to gain access to banking account numbers, credit card offers in your name, or other highly sensitive accounts.
- Filing a change of address form – Identity thievs can forward your mail to another address to gain access to pre-approved credit card offers and bank accounts.
- Taking your trash – Identity thieves can sift through your paperwork to find personal information that may help them open new lines of credit or take advantage of any accounts you have.
- Allowing others in your home while your gone – Make sure you have personal information, bank statements, and any papers with account numbers on them stored in a safe place. This includes situations when your having someone house sit for you or when workers have access to your home.
- Crooked employees – These nefarious individuals simply steal your credit card number and personal information while processing a transaction for you over the phone.
- Impersonating a company employee – In this case the perpetrator will call you impersonating an individual from a service provider with whom you may have a legitimate relationship and ask you for your account number or social security number. You can easily check this out by calling the company using the phone number you know is correct.
- RFID credit cards – Radio frequency identification tags are embedded in many credit/debit cards these days for easy swiping. Identity thieves have been known to create RFID readers that can capture your credit card number and personal info from your wallet or purse as they pass by you.
- Stealing your phone, computer, or wallet – All of these items have lots of personal information in them that a identity thief can use to his advantage.
- Obtaining a credit report – Identity thieves can obtain information about you by pulling your credit report
What Should I Do If My Identity Has Been Stolen?
Below is a brief list of what you should do in case your identity is stolen. For more detailed information, see the FTC’s instructions on recovering from identity theft.
- Add a fraud alert, and check your credit reports – Call TransUnion (1-800-680-7289), Equifax (1-800-525-6285), or Experian (1-888-397-3742) to notify them and you’ll receive a free credit report in the mail. Take a close look at the credit report once you receive it and report any disputed information immediately.
- Close any accounts that display any fraudulent behavior
- Contact the FTC to file an official complaint
- Contact your local police department and file a report
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