Know Who You are Talking To

You should never give your personal information to anyone who contacts you if you are not certain who that person is.  This is just as true if they are standing at your front door, talking to you on the phone, or communicating over the Internet.  Legitimate companies will not contact you for personal information such as bank account numbers, credit card information, etc.  In the same way, we will never email you to ask for your Internet password or financial information.  Of course, if you call a company yourself at a number that you know is valid, it should be safe to give information that is appropriate for that vendor to have if they request it.

Guard Your Social Security number

All someone really needs to steal your identity is your name, Social Security number (SS#), and date of birth.  This will allow them to get enough information to make a new identity in your name.  For this reason, you should avoid carrying documents that have your SS# printed on them, such as your Social Security card, as well as many insurance cards.  If your state normally prints your SS# on your driver’s license, insist that they use an alternate number to identify you.  Most will agree to do so.  You should also be especially careful about who you give your SS# to.  Certain organizations are required to ask for your SS#, such as your employer or your bank (so they can report your salary or interest earned).  However, other private organizations that ask for it may not have a good reason to do so.  Ask why they need this information.  It is not a good enough reason simply because your SS# is a unique way to identify your account.  Ask them to assign a different account number.  If they refuse, take your business elsewhere if possible.

Shred the Evidence

If you throw out documents, be sure to shred any paperwork that has sensitive information such as account numbers, date of birth and social security.  If you receive pre-approved credit card applications in the mail, shred them or tear them into pieces before throwing them out.  If a thief gets their hands on an application with your name on it, they can open a credit card in your name.  They will often have the bill sent to a PO Box, and you will not realize that they are charging thousands of dollars under your name until months later.  You can limit the amount of pre-approved applications and other junk mail you receive by contacting the Direct Marketing Association, which maintains a list of people who do not want to receive junk mail.  Their opt-out list is adhered to by most reputable organizations that send direct mail, including financial institutions that send pre-approved credit forms.

Don’t Leave Mail Unattended for Long

Do not leave outgoing mail in your mailbox overnight.  You may want to consider dropping outgoing mail in a Postal Box. Also, collect your incoming mail as soon as possible after it is delivered.

Be Wary of Debit Cards

Many banks now issue debit cards in place of ATM cards.  Debit cards look like credit cards, and usually have the logo of a known credit provider like Master Card or Visa printed on the card.  However, there is a big difference between debit and credit cards.  When a charge is made against a debit card, the money is actually drawn directly out of your bank account.  This means that someone can drain your bank account of every last dime if they fraudulently use your debit card.  With credit cards, on the other hand, the money does not leave your bank account until after you pay the bill, which gives you control over the amount drawn, and an opportunity to dispute any unauthorized charges.  Credit cards also have built in protection for the consumer.  There is a $50 maximum that you are responsible for if your card is lost or stolen and used fraudulently, and that is often waived if you provide immediate notice to the card provider.  While some debit cards claim that they offer similar fraud limits, the money is still missing from your bank account while a charge is being disputed, and you may have to fight the financial institution that issued your card to get your money back.  In addition to being a frustrating experience, this could cause additional financial troubles if any checks you have written begin to bounce due to a lack of funds.  If your bank sends you a debit card, it is best to ask them for a standard ATM card instead, since an ATM card cannot be used if it is lost or stolen (unless the crook has your PIN).

Stick with Well Known ATMs

While ATM cards are more secure than debit cards, you still need to be careful where you use them.  Some enterprising crooks are now buying ATM machines and temporarily installing them in out of the way places like gas stations, convenience stores, etc.  When you insert your card and type your PIN in one of these crooked machines, it is programmed to record your account number and PIN.  You may get a message that the machine is temporarily out of service, but the thief can burn a blank card with your information, in essence making a duplicate ATM card that can later be used to steal your money out of legitimate machines.  While most ATMs in these types of places are not crooked, it is best to stick with well known locations like banks and major grocery store chains.

Guard Your Checking Account and Routing Numbers

Never give your checking account and routing number to anyone over the phone or via Internet unless you are sure they are legitimate.  There are various types of “scam spam” emails that will request this information, and they have caused terrible problems for consumers.  One common email scam, for example, will say that you have won a huge foreign lottery.  To claim your money all you need to do is confirm your bank account information.  If you do so, your account will be drained of all funds. The crooks are usually based overseas, and there is nothing you can do to get your money back.

Check Your Credit Card Statements

Be sure to check your credit card statement as soon as you receive it.  Dispute any bogus charges or fraud you find on your statement in writing within 60 days of the charge to be fully protected by the credit laws.  If you wait more than 60 days, your credit card company has no obligation to reverse the charges.  It is also a good idea to get copies of your credit reports from the three major reporting companies at least once a year, and definitely do so if you suspect you are the victim of fraud or identity theft.  You may qualify for a free report depending on your circumstances or the state in which you live.  The contact information for the three major credit bureaus is:

Equifax –
To order your report, call: 800-685-1111 or write:
P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241

Experian –
To order your report, call: 888-EXPERIAN (397-3742) or write:
P.O. Box 2002, Allen TX 75013

Trans Union –
To order your report, call: 800-888-4213 or write:
P.O. Box 1000, Chester, PA 19022

Take quick action if your identity has been stolen

You can find more information on identity theft, FTC Identity Theft Web site, including what to do if you think your identity has been stolen.

In the case of identity theft, an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.  Taking a few simple steps today to protect yourself can save you a great deal of time, trouble and money later.