Identity Theft & Credit Card Fraud Prevention
There isn’t another you. However, there are plenty of crooks who are looking to be you and steal your identity for their financial gain. Some of them are good enough to do it if you aren’t vigilant about identity theft protection.
Identity theft is the fastest growing white-collar crime in America. Someone obtains your Social Security number, date of birth and your mother’s maiden name and, without you knowing it, they’ve borrowed money, ordered merchandise or stolen money from your bank account.
It’s important that you know the signs of identity theft and learn tips to protect your identity.
What Is Identity Theft?
Identity theft involves crimes against individuals where personal and financial data is illegally obtained by fraud or deception, usually for financial gain.
Identity theft is a federal crime, and, according to the Federal Trade Commission, it commonly comes in the form of credit card fraud, employment or tax-related fraud, phone or utility fraud and bank.
What can identity thieves do to you? They can:
- Apply for credit cards or loans in your name
- Withdraw funds from your bank account
- Use your health insurance to obtain medical care
- Use your Social Security number to steal your tax refund
- Sell your information on the dark web to other criminals
In addition to the direct financial loss you may suffer, you also may have to spend time and money proving that someone else did these things and get your good financial name back. It’s like being victimized twice.
Signs of Identity Theft
Of course, you can’t correct a problem you don’t know you have, so it’s important to know the signs that someone has stolen your identity.
Signs of identity theft include:
- You stop getting household bills in the mail, which may mean someone has changed your billing address.
- You are turned down for a loan or get approved at higher interest rates despite having a history of good.
- You get bills for purchases you didn’t make or credit accounts that aren’t yours.
- You see unauthorized transactions on your bank, credit card or other financial statements. Even small credit card purchases are a red flag, because thieves often make such transactions to make sure the stolen card is still active before making larger purchases.
- The IRS rejects your tax returns, which may mean someone fraudulently filed in your name.
Identity Theft Prevention Tips
The good news about identity theft is that you aren’t helpless. If you take responsibility and are vigilant about protecting your information, you can make it much harder for identity thieves to victimize you. But take note: We’re not talking about one-time solution. It requires a mindset of guarding your identity whenever you spend and wherever you go.
Tips to protect your identity include:
- Place a fraud alert or security freeze on your credit report. If you aren’t planning to open any new lines of credit in the near future, a fraud alert creates an obstacle for anyone trying to open an account in your name. Businesses are warned to confirm that it’s really you before processing an application. You can place a fraud alert on your credit report by contacting any one of the three credit bureaus. It is free and lasts from 90 days to 7 years, depending on the type of alert you choose.
- Place a security freeze on your credit report. You must enter a PIN or password before a business can check your credit. This adds a layer of protection to a fraud alert. It’s free and doesn’t expire, but you’ll have to request a freeze with all three credit bureaus instead of just one.
- Order free credit reports to keep an eye on your credit. You’re entitled to one free credit report annually from each of the three bureaus. Alternating the reports from the different bureaus every four months allows you to keep an even closer eye on your credit.
- Monitor your accounts online. If you don’t already have them, start online accounts with your bank and each loan and credit card and check it regularly to make sure no unauthorized charges appear. There are credit monitoring services that will do this for you, but they are not cheap.
- Don’t carry your Social Security card with you. Keep this and other sensitive documents in a safe place. Don’t enter your SSN in a website that isn’t secure.
- Use strong passwords to protect your data, and don’t use the same one for every account. Don’t include obvious identifiers like your name or birthday, which are easy for thieves to guess, and change passwords any time you think your account may be compromised.
- Shred documents with your personal information before throwing them away. Good shredders are inexpensive, and identity thieves raid garbage cans looking for information to steal your identity. Bills, credit card and ATM receipts all should be shredded.
- Pay your bills online rather than sending checks in the mail, which thieves can steal and get your bank account number.
How to Protect Yourself from Credit Card Fraud
Because we use them so frequently and they’re accepted virtually everywhere, credit or debit cards are an obvious target for identity thieves.
Whether you lose one or someone steals your physical card or thieves get your account number and security code, the result can be purchases you didn’t make – often big ones – showing up on your credit card statement.
Here are ways to protect yourself from credit card fraud:
- Only provide your credit card numbers on sites you know to be reputable and secure.
- Be careful about responding to offers through unsolicited email.
- Be cautious with companies or people outside of the country.
- Never give anyone your PIN number. You’re the only person who needs to know it.
- Maintain a list of your credit cards and account information, including the card issuer’s contact information. Don’t hesitate to contact the issuer if something looks wrong.
- Only carry the cards for a specific need, whether in town or traveling. If you lose your wallet, you don’t want to worry about more than one card. If you travel with a backup card, store it in a secure place, such as a hotel safe.
- Don’t sign blank credit card receipts. Make the amount you’re being charged is correct before you sign. If the receipt has blank spaces, write $0 or draw through them before signing to prevent a different amount being written in after you sign.
- Check for skimming devices before inserting your credit card at gas stations and ATMS. Thieves place such devices onto card readers to steal your information. If the card swipe doesn’t look right, shop elsewhere.
- Review your billing statements monthly. Report any charge you didn’t make, no matter how small. Your card issuer will let you know if you should close your account and get a new account number.
- Report lost or stolen credit cards right away, which reduces the chances you’ll have to pay for fraudulent charges. Write down the card customer service number in case a card ever gets lost.
Don’t Use Public Wi-Fi for Private Information
In this era of portable workplaces, it’s sometimes tempting to set up your “office’’ in the local coffee shop. That’s fine. But be cognizant of potential dangers when relying on a public Wi-Fi connection.
Your data could be intercepted by outsiders. When working at a cafe, airport, library or hotel, don’t conduct bank transactions, make online purchases, enter your Social Security number or send other sensitive information. There could be security compromises.
Cyber criminals are known to set up Wi-Fi hotspots, sometimes known as “evil twins’’ or “rogue hotspots,’’ which are used to steal information from users.
Obviously, you want to avoid sending passwords or account log-in credentials over a public or unsecured Wi-Fi network. That’s like broadcasting all of your personal information to everyone within the radius of your wireless signal.
For small business owners, individuals or families, it’s a good practice to secure your wireless network with a password. That way, unauthorized individuals can’t hijack your wireless network. It might seem innocent enough if someone is attempting to secure free Wi-Fi access, but private information could be inadvertently shared without your permission. You don’t want that.
How to Protect Yourself from Social Media Identity Theft
Since you aren’t using your credit card or doing banking on social media sites, you might think they are a safe haven from identity thieves. You couldn’t be more wrong. If you aren’t careful, you will give the unscrupulous enough information to steal your identity. You may trust your friends, but they might unwittingly post links that entice you to give thieves what they need. Have you ever gotten a Facebook friend request from someone whom you already have already friended? That’s an example of a stolen identity, and it can be used to trick people into sharing personal information.
Here are some tips to protect yourself on social media:
- Avoid sharing about your vacation while you’re away. Wait until you return home. If thieves know you’re not there, they might think it’s safer to break in and take not only your physical assets but private information to steal your identity.
- Don’t share potential password clues. If you’re serious about online security, you avoid passwords that are based on information that can easily be discovered.
- Don’t respond to social media quizzes or games asking you to reveal your mother’s maiden name, favorite hobbies, your first pet’s name or similar information. Those may be security questions for your banking or credit accounts to confirm your identity if you forget a password.
- Don’t accept friend requests from strangers. Not even the one with the gorgeous or handsome profile photo. Accepting them invites them to seek information they shouldn’t have.
- If you purchase things through a social media site, don’t let them store your credit card information or link your card to your profile. An identity thief could get into those accounts and buy all kinds of items, leaving you having to prove it wasn’t actually you. Enter your information each time you buy something, and only then.
- Don’t post your birthdate, or at least remove the year you were born. That is information identity thieves want.
Mail Theft Protection
Think of all the highly personal and financial information that travels via mail: bank and credit card statements, loan invoices, bills, checks, healthcare records and more. This data-rich mix is just what ID thieves are looking for, and it enables them to use your personal information to commit fraud and theft.
1. Reduce the amount of junk mail you receive: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans throw out more than 4 million tons of junk mail every year. Junk mail is easily stolen from your mailbox or garbage, and while it may seem like trash to you, would-be thieves want it. Better Business Bureau research also shows that the majority of ID theft occurs when the thief has direct contact with the victim’s personal information by rifling through a mailbox or trash can.
Limit your junk mail by taking action. Stop pre-screened credit offers by “opting-out” of these mailing. To opt-out of receiving pre-approved credit card offers, call 1-888-5-OPTOUT (567-8688) or visit http://www.optoutprescreen.com. You will be asked for personal information, including your name, address, birth date and Social Security number. This information is used only to process requests and will remain confidential.
For the purposes of this site, direct mail is divided into four categories: Credit Offers, Catalogs, Magazine Offers and Other Mail Offers. You can request to start or stop receiving mail from individual companies within each category – or from an entire category at once.
2. Secure your mailbox and trash: Consider switching to a locking mailbox if you don’t already have one, or try using a front door mail slot instead of a mailbox. Shred or tear up any unwanted mail before throwing it away. Trashing your unwanted mail intact (especially while still in the envelope) makes it too easy for thieves to find and use your information. Also, if you are going to be away from home for an extended period of time, ask the post office or your carrier to stop your mail it doesn’t pile up.
Old Technology Disposal
When your old computers and mobile devices are no longer usable, be careful when dispensing of them.
You can protect your personal information by making the computer hard drives unreadable. After backing up the data and transferring the files, you can “sanitize’’ the computer by magnetically cleaning the disk or using software to wipe the disk clean.
Security experts agree that you should wipe your mobile devices clean and restore them to factory settings if you’re thinking about giving them away (particularly to someone you don’t know). It’s like gift-wrapping all your personal data for the recipient of your old smartphone or tablet.
For mobile devices, you should check your owner’s manual, the service provider’s website or the device manufacturer’s website for information on how to delete information permanently. Remember to remove the memory or subscriber identity module (SIM) card from the mobile device. You want to remove the phone book, list of calls made and received, voicemails, messages sent and received, folder organizers, web search history and photos.
It’s a great idea to back up data into a secure cloud storage service. But cloud backups (and any data backups) add a layer of complication. You must delete files from the backup services in addition to your local devices. When deleting from your computer or mobile device, it’s easy to forget the information remains stored in your cloud account.
How to Report Identity Theft
So, if your best efforts have failed and someone steals and uses your personal information to open new accounts, make purchases or get a tax refund, report it immediately to the Federal Trade Commission, credit bureaus, any companies involved and the police. Doing so declares your innocence and jumpstarts an investigation.
- To report to the FTC, go online to IdentityTheft.gov or call 877-438-4338 to start the process of getting the fraudulent accounts off your credit report. The site provides information to help you recover from the harm that was done to you.
- The FTC says it’s critical to also report the issue to the police if you know who the identity thief is or have other information to aid an investigation, if the identity thief used your name while interacting with the police or if a creditor or other affected party wants a police report. Bring a copy of the FTC identity theft report to the police. Ask for a copy of the police report, which serves as sworn statement that you were not responsible for any crimes the thief committed using your name.
- Report it to the U.S. Postal Service at uspis.gov/report if you think mail theft was involved in stealing your identity.
- Call any of the three credit bureaus, who will notify the others: Equifax,800-525-6285; Experian, 888-397-3742; TransUnion, 800-680-7289.
- If the fraud involved a current credit card, you shouldn’t be liable for the charges if you report it to the card company promptly. The FTC has a sample letter to use if the company requires written notice. A copy of a police report also may be required.
- Place a credit freeze or extended fraud alert with the credit bureaus.
Obviously, it’s a lot of hassle to deal with stolen identity. That’s all the more reason to make a concerted effort to prevent it from happening.
About The Author
In his 40-plus-year newspaper career, George Morris has written about just about everything -- Super Bowls, evangelists, World War II veterans and ordinary people with extraordinary tales. His work has received multiple honors from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press and the Louisiana Press Association. He avoids debt when he can and pays it off quickly when he can't, and he's only too happy to suggest how you might do the same.
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