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Protecting Your Good Name: Preventing Identity Theft

Taking the extra steps to protect your identity might require a little more time, but the effort will make it that much harder for thieves to steal what’s most precious to you: your good name and your good credit history. 

With tough financial times upon us, we’re all fighting to keep our jobs, and identity thieves are no exception. The golden days of stealing a tossed-out credit card application and turning it into a real credit card for the thief are gone. Credit card companies are making their approval processes more stringent, and now even legitimate consumers are being denied. Unfortunately, just like everyone else, the thieves are working lots of overtime to compensate for this, so it’s more important than ever to safeguard our financial health.

I found this out the hard way recently when I learned that someone had access to my debit card, checking account, cell phone account, and that most likely, that same someone was trying to get my Social Security number by calling my employer for a so-called “employment verification.” After more than a few moments of panic and taking the necessary steps to try to correct my situation, I did some research to find out how to make some permanent changes so that this (hopefully) never happens again.

Buy a shredder—and shred even the documents that aren’t a security risk.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out that my thieves probably found their initial information on me by Dumpster diving. I’d been smart enough to spend hours cutting through account numbers, credit card offers, and anything with my social security number on it into tiny pieces before throwing it away. But I’d carelessly thrown away mail that had my full name, address, and employer name on it. (Hence, that employment verification call.) Make an investment in a shredder and shred absolutely everything that has any personal information on it—even if it’s just your name—before throwing it away. This will decrease your chances of becoming a target.

Stop receiving paper statements.
Cut down on your shredding time by setting up online accounts with all of your creditors and banks. Thieves need only a minimal amount of your personal information to have all your mail forwarded to an address of their choice. Stopping paper statements will help ensure that they’ve got very little to work with should they ever gain access to your mail. Plus, you’ll be helping the environment. Keep your mailbox tidy by opting out of credit card offers and other junk mail.

Don’t leave outgoing mail in an unsecured box.
If you can, drop any outgoing mail at a USPS mailbox, rather than leaving it in your mailbox at home or in an “outgoing” box at work. Creditor billing envelopes are pretty easy to spot, so it’s simple to just pick up your envelope, open it, and record all your personal information—including your checking account number.

Secure your social networking sites.
An industrious thief can learn a lot about you simply by reading your Facebook, LinkedIn, or other social networking profiles. One of my profiles contained a list of my favorite pets over the years; since “favorite pet” is a common security question, it wasn’t hard to play the guessing game and gain access to my cell phone account. Social networking sites make it easy to find information like your mother’s maiden name (it’s not so hard to track down anymore), birthdays, anniversaries, universities attended, etc. Change your profile settings so that only friends or those accepted into your network can view your information—be vigilant about accepting only people you really know and trust.

Make your passwords more secure.
Although this seems like common sense, when I took stock of all my passwords, I found that they were probably pretty simple to crack. Passwords should be a series of letters, numbers, and symbols, and the letters should be a mixture of upper and lower case. The longer the better—eight characters is the absolute minimum, but ideally, your password should be fourteen characters or longer. Check out the strength of your password with this password checker.

Shield your activity at ATMs or anywhere you enter a pin number.
I always take a quick look around before I enter my pin anywhere to see the people behind me and what they’re doing, but I’ve probably not given a second thought to the person standing behind me who seems to be idly texting on his or her phone. Thieves often pretend to be busy on their phone, but really they’re taking a picture of your card or taking video of you entering your pin, so shield the keypad no matter where you are; you don’t have to be at a shady ATM or sketchy liquor store to have your pin number stolen.

Pay cash when you can.
Unfortunately, identity thieves sometimes come in the form of dishonest employees at restaurants, shops, or other places that accept credit cards. They engage in a practice called skimming, which is copying the magnetic strip on the back of your card into a small device so that they can make a counterfeit card and sell it. It’s better to opt for paying in cash or by credit card at any merchant that requires you to put a social security number or driver’s license number (this is illegal in some states) on your check.

Never give out information to people unless you’ve contacted them.
Many thieves are taking advantage of the current financial craziness by proactively contacting bank customers of purchased banks and posing as customer service from the new bank. For example, thieves might contact Washington Mutual customers and pose as a JP Morgan customer service representative and ask for updated information. This is called phishing, and even though it’s been happening for years, the uncharted financial territory we’re in these days makes us more vulnerable. Don’t give out information to anyone who contacts you, unless you’ve contacted that person or company first. Phishing can happen by email, phone, or letter, so if you’re in doubt about the authenticity of the communication, call the creditor or bank to see if they really needed to contact you.

Check your credit report once a year.
Each credit reporting bureau allows you one free report per year. Instead of checking only once, consider staggering your requests, asking for a report from a different reporting agency every four months. This gives you more opportunity to stay up-to-date on any activity, either fraudulent or misreported.

Taking these extra steps might require a little more time, but the effort will make it that much harder for thieves to steal what’s most precious to you: your good name and your good credit history. After thieves buy expensive homes and cars, or run up astronomical credit card debt in your name, you’ll be left to pick up the pieces. Many consumers have the added burden of cleaning up bankruptcy filed in their name by the thieves. Sometimes, financial gain isn’t even the goal. Thieves can apply for a passport in your name and bring illegal substances into the country; they can commit felonies in your name or even just pile up annoying parking tickets. Be committed to watchdogging your information; a shredder is a lot less expensive than bankruptcy.

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