While certainly not a new problem, identity theft is a growing concern and consistently ranks as one of the top categories of complaints received by the Federal Trade Commission. As our lives become increasingly busy and complex, and more information than ever is stored and transmitted online, it is more important than ever to protect our personal information. Here are some simple and effective ways to do that.
Securing Personal Information Offline:
Though an increasing amount of personal information is collected and stored electronically, securing documents that are stored offline is just as important as ever.
Here are a few simple steps that you can take to help secure your documents:
- Lock your financial documents and records in a safe place at home and secure your wallet or purse while you are away from home.
- Limit the documents you carry with you and only bring what is really, truly necessary. Whenever possible, carry copies of the original documents, not the originals, and redact all but the last four digits of your Social Security number.
- Promptly retrieve your mail and shred any credit offers, insurance forms, bank statements, etc. that are no longer needed. You may opt-out of unsolicited credit card offers by dialing 1-888-5-OPT OUT. Finally, be sure to place a vacation hold with the post office if you’re planning to be away for several days.
- Shred any documents that contain sensitive information and destroy old prescription bottles before throwing them away- they may be a treasure trove for identity thieves.
Protecting your Social Security Number:
Securing your Social Security number is so critical to protecting your identity that it deserves to be treated as a separate topic.
- Do not carry your Social Security card in your wallet. The original is rarely needed and better stored with your other important documents. Instead, carry a copy with all but the last four digits redacted.
- Before sharing your Social Security number for identification purposes, ask yourself the following questions
- Why do they need it?
- How will it be used?
- How will it be protected?
- What happens if you don’t share it?
- Are there other ways to verify your identity?
Securing Personal Information Online:
Online communication has revolutionized the way we interact with one another. While the benefits have been felt in many facets of our personal and professional lives, this technological boon has also been a boon to thieves; making it easier than ever for them to steal our personal information.
Here are some helpful tips to help protect your personal information online.
- Watch out for scams: don’t give out personal information to anyone unless they have a legitimate reason to have it and you have initiated contact with the recipient of that information. If a company claiming to have an account with you sends an email message don’t click on the link. Instead, visit their website, gather their contact information and contact them through their customer service number. This includes the Internal Revenue Service, as brazen tax-related scams are on the rise. And, as always, be wary of offers that sound too good to be true, or of anyone soliciting personal information from you over the phone.
- Encrypt your data and use strong passwords.
- Change your passwords frequently.
- Be careful of the type of information you share on Social Networking Sites. Don’t accept friend requests from people unknown to you, do not click on links unless you are sure of their source, and limit the sharing of personal information. Many seemingly disparate pieces of information, when combined, may provide a thief more than enough information to assume your identity.
- Safely dispose of personal computers and mobile devices. When disposing of a computer, remove any personal information and use a wipe utility program to overwrite the entire hard drive. For mobile devices, remove the SIM card, phone books, call logs, voice mails and data messages sent and received. Check with the device’s manufacturer for additional information on safely disposing of your device.
Protecting Your Devices:
Computers and mobile devices have become an indispensable part of everyday life. They connect us in ways previously unimaginable and provide features that can make our lives easier. Each, however, come with their own set of security challenges that must be addressed and constantly modified.
- We suggest using anti-virus/anti-spyware software and a firewall on computers AND mobile devices. While not perfect, they offer the first line of defense against thieves.
- Be wary of Phishing emails: don’t open files or click on links unless you know the source. Opening unknown files may expose your device to a virus, spyware or malware. These may be used to capture a password or other sensitive information.
- Be wise about Wi-Fi: before using a public wireless network- like those in a coffee shop, airport terminal or hotel, see if your information will be protected. If you are not certain, assume that they are not secure and limit the information that you send.
- Lock your devices. Don’t use automatic login software that saves user names and passwords and always log off when you’re finished. Make your computer or mobile device as useless to a potential thief as possible.
Five Easy Steps to Help Protect Your Identity:
Clients are often very busy and ask us for some easy-to-follow steps and suggestions on how to protect their identities. While not inclusive, the following steps can be helpful:
- Read your credit card statements carefully. Look for any questionable charges and report them right away.
- Know when payments are due- if invoices don’t show up when expected, call the vendor.
- Review health insurance statements to ensure that the claims paid are consistent with the services provided.
- Secure your online accounts by changing passwords frequently and shred any unneeded documents that contain personal information.
- Review your annual credit report– it’s easy to do and can be obtained free of charge.
What to Do If You Are a Victim of Identity Theft:
What if, despite all your best efforts, you find yourself the victim of identity theft?
- Place an initial fraud alert- ask one of the three credit reporting agencies to place a fraud alert on all three of your credit reports, and verify that they will do this. Be sure the company has your current contact information. The alert only lasts 90 days but may be extended.
- Order copies of your credit reports. You are entitled to one free report each year.
- Create an identity theft folder and use it to store letters and log telephone calls.
- Create an identity theft report by filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Use that report to file a police report. These reports may help you remove fraudulent information from your credit report, stop debt collectors and obtain information from companies about accounts that a thief opened or misused.
Long-term remedies include extended fraud alerts and credit freezes. The Federal Trade Commission website contains useful information and outlines for updating and documenting your files.
Identity Theft Protection Services: Can They Really Prevent Identity Theft?
Many people choose to enroll in identity theft protection services- some are offered for little or no cost through their bank or credit card issuer, while others are made available on a subscription basis. The tools that these firms use for credit monitoring and protection are similar, but some providers offer additional services that may be of value.
- Identity theft protection companies may help you monitor your accounts. They can place fraud alerts or freezes on your behalf and remove your name from marketing lists.
- These firms may “lock”, “flag” or “freeze” your credit reports.
- Consumers may do all of these things on their own but may find value in being guided through the process.
A good offense may be your best defense against identity theft: stay informed about current scams, be wary of sharing personal information and inquire about how your information is stored. These simple steps can help reduce your chances of being victimized.
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John Male, CFP®, RICP®
The Gassman Financial Group
The Retirement Maven ™
9 East 40th Street, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10016