The new financial nightmare
The incidence of identity theft is nearly doubling each year. Access to information and credit through machines and anonymous sources has led to this new financial problem.
Often, the effects of identity theft are devastating to the victim. The victim cannot get credit, will receive countless phone calls until late hours of the night, and will have his or her entire financial life turned upside down, possibly for years. Identity theft often is 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 prevention before it starts, but 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 also can access your information through means as simple as your trash can or mailbox. Accordingly, make sure you prevent identity thieves from 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 e-mail. There currently are millions of spam e-mails being sent out trying to get people to give out information to identity thieves. Identity thieves often will send e-mails offering great products at too-good-to-be-true prices just to get credit card numbers. They also send e-mails pretending to be from the Social Security office saying they need to verify your Social Security number. Scam artists will use any method possible to get your identity from you. 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 mailbox. However, if you have a mailbox, be sure never to leave mail in your box overnight. The mailbox is an 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 also can be an information leak. 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 or files on credit cards to anyone.
View in Private
View your information in a private manner. Low-tech thieves have come up with ingenious ways to view your information alongside you. Looking over your shoulder at information on your computer screen or when you swipe your credit card through a machine, or listening when you read a credit card or social security number over the phone can be simple ways to obtain your data.
Always view and speak your information in private. Locate your computer away from public viewing areas and windows. Keep your machine off when not in use. Do not walk away from your computer when you have a critical document open. Use passwords and screen savers that 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. Cellular 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 phones around, you still should cover your numbers when the card is out. Never leave it in a public area.
Hide Under Lock and Key
Hide your information, and not under the couch. Keep all critical documents and cards in a secured location after and between viewing them. No hiding system is foolproof, but naming computer files something other than “My Credit Report” or “Customer Information” is a good start. Give the files a name that you would know to look under, such as your pet’s name or something else nonspecific.
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 hold of your credit card statements, your credit report or your bank books. All of a sudden, a television purchased ten years ago doesn’t seem like much of a loss when compared to losing all of your or your customers’ financial data. It is well worth your time to hide and lock your identity and information.
Just because you throw information out does not mean thieves are no longer interested in it. Trash bins can be gold mines to thieves when it comes to robbing you of your valuables. Credit card statements, Social Security statements, bank statements and customer files all can be very valuable to a thief. Invest in a cross-hatch shredder: Strip-type shredders really are insufficient for the job because thieves will take 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 the document you just shredded! On the other hand, a document sent through a cross-hatch shredder will probably take hours to recreate in a legible format, if it is possible at all.
For computer files, be sure to know where the information is and destroy it as you no longer need it. 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 who wants the information from it. Take your computer 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
The two guidewords here are seek and watch. One thing many people neglect to do is 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. 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.
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 a simple mistake, but it is better to be safe than sorry.
What to Do if Your Identity Is Stolen
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. Contact all three credit bureaus and have a security hold placed on your account. 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 aid you in stopping the thief from getting any further.
Once you receive your credit card statements and report the incident, get your side of the story out to all interested parties. Tell them what happened, what is correct and what is stolen. Doing this will not be easy, but you must do it if you want your credit back.
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 wave a magic wand, an attorney can be someone in your corner who knows how to best deal with this situation and prevent it from 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.