Identity Theft: The New Financial Nightmare
By: Bart A. Basi & Marcus S. Renwick
The incidence of identity theft is nearly doubling each year. Access to information, credit through machines and anonymous sources had lead to this new financial problem. Often the effects of identity theft are devastating on the victim. The victim cannot get credit, will receive countless phone calls until late hours of the night, and will have their entire financial lives turned upside down for possible years. Identity theft is often frustrating and difficult to deal with.Not only can it cause years of frustration, it can cost valuable time and money. The best way to deal with identity theft is total preventative measures before it starts; there are also ways to fight back once it has begun. This article will discuss what all consumers, taxpayers and businesses should do to guard their financial lives and make sure they do not become victim to this ever growing trend.
Prevention can best be described in four words: Protect, View, Hide, and Destroy. If you can remember these four simple words, you can prevent identity theft from happening to you and your clients.
Protect your information and identity. Identity thieves not only access your information through machines, they can also access your information through means as simple as your trash can or mailbox. Accordingly, make sure you prevent identity thieves form gathering or viewing your information before it even comes into your hands.
Obviously when it comes to your computer and telephone, be safe! Never give out your computer passwords, credit card numbers, social security number, address or any private information about yourself to an unsolicited email. Currently there are millions of spam emails being sent out trying to get people to give out information to identity thieves. Often identity thieves will send emails offering great products at to-good-to-be-true prices just to get your credit card numbers. They can also send emails pretending to be from the social security office needing to verify your social security number. Scam artists will use any method possible to get your identity from you. So, be careful with your information!Another place you should protect is your mailbox. It is always best to have a post office box or locked mail box. However, if you have a mailbox, be sure to never leave any mail in your mailbox overnight. The mailbox is an extremely easy target for thieves. Not only can they get credit card information, but they can possibly obtain social security numbers as well. If you have any accounts using your social security number as an identifier, ask if that number can be changed.
Children and parents can also be an information leak. Educate your children and parents to avoid them from inadvertently handing information to anyone. Often children and parents know substantially more about you and have greater access to your records than anyone else. Therefore, they can be an inadvertent threat. Educate them to never hand out numbers, files on credit card numbers, to anyone.
Secondly, View your information in a private manner. Low tech thieves have come up with ingenious ways to view your information alongside you to have access to it. Sometimes looking over your shoulder when you have information opened on your computer, when you swipe your credit card through a machine, listen in when you read a credit card number or social security number over the line, etc. can be a simple way to obtain your data.Always view and speak your information in private. Locate your computer away from public viewing areas and windows. Also keep your machine off when not in use. Do not walk away from your computer when you have a critical document open. Also, use passwords and screensavers which demand passwords to regain access to your documents. This is an inexpensive and easy way to guard your data when you view it.
When using a credit card, be careful when you display it. Telephones can take high resolution photos now. If you see someone with a phone around you, be sure to cover your credit and social security cards when using them. Even if you don’t see telephones around, still cover your numbers when the card is out and never leave it in a public area.
Next, Hide your information. No, I don’t mean under the couch. Keep all critical documents and cards in a secured location after and between viewing them. No system of hiding is fool proof, but naming computer files something other than “ALL THE INFORMATION YOU’LL EVER WANT TO KNOW ABOUT ME AND MY CUSTOMERS” or “MY CREDIT REPORT”, is a good start. Name the files something you would know to look under, such as your dogs name or something else nonspecific to a thief.
Keep paper documents under lock and key. Often in a break in, your identity is more valuable than anything else in your house. Just think if a thief were to get a hold of your credit card statements, your credit report, your bank books, etc.. All of a sudden, a television purchased 10 years ago doesn’t seem like much of a loss when compared to losing all of your or your customer’s financial data. Therefore, it is well worth your time to spend time hiding and locking your identity and information.
Next and last, Destroy your information. Just because you threw the information out, does not mean that thieves are no longer interested in it. Trash cans can be a gold mine to thieves when it comes to robbing you of your valuables. Credit card statements, social security statements, bank statements, customer files, etc can all be very valuable to a thief. Therefore, invest in a shredder! Strip type shredders are really insufficient for the job. Invest in a cross hatch shredder which makes the shreds tiny. This is because thieves will invest the time to put papers back together. As an example, run one sheet of paper through a strip type shedder and then remove the paper. It should take you no longer than one minute to patch together a document you just shredded! Now, on the other hand, send a document through a cross hatch shredder. Try to put that document back together. If it is even possible, it will take probably nearly an hour or two to recreate the document into a legible format. Therefore go with a cross hatch shredder.
For computer files, be sure to know where the information is and destroy it as you no longer need it. But wait, there’s more. When you are done with the computer, destroy all of the information on the hard drive. Just because your 1997 Packard Bell is obsolete to you and your business operation, it is not obsolete to a thief that wants the information off of it. Bring your computer in to a technician and have the hard drive erased or removed before recycling the computer.
It is easy to prevent identity theft. Just be sure to religiously Protect, View, Hide, and Destroy your vital information. Though this is not an all inclusive list of tactics, these are very useful strategies in preventing identity theft.
HOW TO DETERMINE IF YOUR IDENTITY HAS BEEN STOLEN
Two words will guide you here. They are Seek and Watch.
Seek - One thing many people neglect to do is to monitor their credit report. Credit reports are available either online or through the mail with the three major reporting bureaus. They can be provided to you once a year at no cost to you. Even if you do not suspect identity theft, it is a good idea to get and view your credit report each year. In doing so, you can check to see if anyone else is using your social security number and you can have erroneous items removed.
The second thing to do is to Watch for any suspicious activity. Do you receive your bills late? Are there any erroneous or fraudulent charges on your credit card? Are your bills coming at all? Do you have excellent credit, but get denied credit? Has the IRS stated that your income is higher than what you reported? If so, it is possible and even likely that your identity has been stolen or contains substantial errors. If any of this happens it is time to get on the ball and seek out the problem. It could be an error, but it is better to be safe than sorry.
WHAT TO DO IF YOUR IDENTITY HAS BEEN STOLEN
Two words – Report and Counter
First, once you have established your identity has been stolen, Report it immediately. Don’t let a thief enjoy the fruits of your labor and make your life miserable. First, contact all of your credit card companies. The credit card companies will know what to do. Also, have them send you a credit card statement so you can determine what is correct and what is not. Then, contact all three credit bureaus and have a security hold placed on your account. Then, contact the local police and Federal Trade Commission. In the event you received information through the Internal Revenue Service, contact them and explain your story. These organizations will aide you in stopping the thief from getting any further.
Next, Counter. Once you receive your credit card statements and reported the incident, get your side of the story out to all interested parties. Tell them what happened, what is correct, and what is a stolen item. Doing this will not be easy, but if you want your credit back, you must.
You should expect credit card companies, collection agents, and attorneys to contact you threatening to collect the debt. Always be patient with them. Tell them your identity was stolen and that you are working to remedy the process. It may be wise to hire an attorney to represent you during this difficult time. Though an attorney cannot waive a magic wand, an attorney can be someone in your corner who knows how to deal with this situation best and prevent it form recurring.
Identity theft is an unfortunate fact of life in America and the World around us. With a little effort on your part, the worst can be prevented. Don’t be a victim who finds out too late and don’t give up. Contact The Center if you have any questions regarding identity theft.