As anyone who is unfortunate enough to have been a victim of identity theft can tell you, it is one of the most upsetting and extremely annoying non-violent crimes to deal with. Both the invasion of personal privacy, the feeling of ‘why me?!’ and the aftermath of having to sort out and untangle the ensuing mess can be horrific.
Unfortunately, too, identity theft is becoming increasingly common and shows no signs of abating, with experts saying that the crime increased in both 2011 and 2012. In fact it is estimated that 5% of all adult US citizens fall victim to ID theft at some point in their lives. And it’s costing us: again industry experts estimated that back in 2007 between a staggering 8 million and 15 million Americans had their identity stolen or fell victim to fraud, with the average loss of someone who has had their identity stolen being $691 and a person that has had a false account opened in their name losing an average of $1066. That’s not small change by any means!
Examples of Identity Theft
Generally speaking identity theft falls into two main categories; once a criminal has your personal details they will either commit what is known as ‘new account fraud’ – basically opening a new bank account in your name, or ‘account take over fraud’, which again is exactly what it sounds like – using the money in your account to pay for goods or services for their own pleasure or need.
As undesirable as this sounds for your financial situation – because let’s face it – who can afford to lose $1000 just like that? – it is actually a huge pain to sort out the nightmare of identity theft and is something that can have a knock on effect for years after the crime. You might think it is as simple as calling your bank and proving that you were in New York City when your credit or debit card was being used in San Francisco, and speaking from personal experience I was ‘lucky enough’ to be able to do just that when I noticed that one of my bank accounts was seriously depleted. Luckily I had proof that I was actually at home during the dates my account was being used and not on a shopping spree buying car parts in the Philippines, of all things!
However, I think in hindsight I was fortunate, and whilst it did take a call to my bank and some paperwork needing to be signed and sent back, it was relatively painless to deal with. But millions of people are not so lucky and the impact on your reputation if you’ve fallen victim to identity theft can have some pretty devastating repercussions.
The Reality of Identity Theft and why ID Theft Protection is Crucial
Imagine you’ve just applied for your dream job, you’ve found a home that couldn’t be any more perfect for raising your family in if you tried or you want to apply for a credit card or loan to book that retirement cruise around the world that you’ve been promising yourselves for years. All of your plans can be laid to waste if you’ve been unlucky enough to be singled out by some ruthless con artist who decides that they are more entitled to the contents of your bank account – or even your good name – than you are.
When you apply for a job, a bank loan, a credit card, a mortgage, a rental agreement or even a cable account the majority of companies will contact one of the three big credit bureaus in the States - TransUnion, Equifax or Experian - so that they can obtain a copy of your credit report. All well and good you say, I have nothing to hide. Maybe you don’t but what if, without your knowledge, someone has opened a bank account in your name and run up horrific debts? What if someone has stolen your identity and is actually committing crimes in your name? If that’s the case, you can be pretty sure that you can kiss goodbye to that dream home or that long-planned vacation and instead say hello to months, possibly even years, of hassle spent trying to clear your name instead.
It’s not only the time-consuming factor, but the fight to prove your identity can actually end up costing you thousands of dollars too. Which doesn’t seem very fair at all, does it? Therefore, it’s starting to become clearer why identity theft protection is actually something that we all need to give a little more thought to.
How Do I Know if I am a Victim of Identity Theft?
The shocking thing is that many of us have been, or even are, victims without even knowing it. If you’re not one of those organized people who rigorously checks their bank statements every month, fraudulent activity can be so subtle that you may not have noticed that anything is wrong and it can be months, or even years, before a few random, unidentified credit card bill charges suddenly take a more serious turn for the worst and you get turned down for a new mortgage or job, you’re presented with a whopping great credit card bill one month or – and imagine this – the police turn up on your doorstep wanting to question you in connection with a crime! The impact on your reputation, employability and credit rating can be devastating for years to come.
Luckily, there are steps you can take and identity theft protection services can be invaluable in providing alerts and alarms when unusual changes have been made on your credit rating report. For a small fee these services will let you know if any new accounts have been opened in your name - although you will still need to check your bank statements personally to make sure that any items or services purchased have been bought by you and you alone. Select id theft protection service wisely because not all companies are honest about what they doing. You may be considering ID Watchdog Platinum a similar identity theft protection service.
Many banks these days will also let you sign up for an email or SMS alert to let you know when your debit or credit card has been used, which is a great way of instantaneously keeping track of payments leaving your account.
Another more drastic option is to ‘freeze’ your account. This means that rather than relying on credit report or bank alerts or paying to monitor your credit rating, the credit agencies won’t release your credit report at all. The service costs a small fee but it’s not a very convenient move if you want to apply for a mortgage or a job or even change the providers of your cable as you will need to pay to unfreeze the account and do so well in advance if you wish to make your credit rating report available to a prospective employer, service or lender.
What Can I Do? 15 Identity Theft Protection Tips
If all this is sounding like too much doom and gloom, don’t worry because besides using the established identity theft protection services, there are things that you can do proactively to help cover yourself and they don’t have to involve a whole lot of effort. Let’s take a look:
1) Get into the habit of regularly checking your credit report, let’s say every three months: make sure the information is correct and that there are no unrecognizable accounts listed or use recommended identity theft protection tools.
2) Never, ever click on a link in an email that’s purporting to come from your bank or other ‘trusted’ source that asks you to verify your account. Your bank won’t do this via email and it’s extremely likely that this is a phishing attempt. And it’s not just banks – unscrupulous fraudsters are very good at faking emails ‘from’ eBay and other selling platforms too – all with an aim to getting their hands on your buyer, seller or PayPal account details.
3) The same goes with phone calls. If someone claiming to be from your bank calls asking for you to give them account details over the phone: don’t! Hang up and call your bank’s helpline to verify this instead.
4) Shred all of your personal documents before throwing them away to avoid them being retrieved by ‘dumpster divers’. If you can’t afford a shredder an old fashioned hole punch will do the job just as well. This is a tried and tested non-technical way of fraudsters obtaining social security and credit card numbers as well as bank account details.
5) Obviously you can’t shred birth certificates, passports, tax returns, insurance policies and so forth but make sure they are securely locked away at home. Consider investing in a safe and either hide it well or bolt it to the floor.
6) We know we should do it but how many of us are guilty of being a little too slapdash when using the ATM? Try using the ‘two finger pointing’ method: hover both fingers over the keypad but only use one to type as this makes it extremely difficult for anyone to identify your pin number.
7) Likewise, always check before withdrawing money and if the ATM appears to have been tampered with in or around the card slot or has any strange devices attached to it, don’t use it as it may have had a card reader installed or inserted.
8) Perhaps it goes without saying but try and memorize pin numbers, account numbers and passwords and whatever you do, don’t write them down on scraps of paper!
9) You need to order blank checks? Have them delivered to your bank for you to collect rather than having them sitting in your mailbox waiting for some light-fingered thief to come along and take them.
10) If you order a new bank card don’t just forget about it. Wait the recommended amount of days and then if it still hasn’t arrived, contact your bank and ask them if anyone has contacted them with a change of address request. If yes – stop that card immediately.
11) Don’t just shred your bank statements and personal documents; shred (or hole punch!) junk mail too – destroy all those ‘convenience checks’ and pre-approved credit card offers so no-one else can take up the offer on your behalf. 12) Buy a mail box with a secure lock, or better still, use a post office box.
13) Is a company asking you for ‘unique ID’? Do they really need your social security number? Ask if you can use a driver’s license or birth certificate instead.
14) To be on the safe side, don’t leave sensitive documentation on your computer any longer than is necessary – print it off and lock it away. (In your new safe!)
15) If you save passwords in a software program such as Password Agent on your PC or laptop and have had to take it in for a repair or overhaul, as soon as you get it back, change all of your passwords. And not just your banks’ passwords but your email, eBay, Amazon and Facebook passwords too.
Finally, as unlikely as it may seem at the time if you’re in a relationship be a little bit careful about what information you share with your partner (and the same goes for friends too – no matter how trusted). Most of us have had a relationship fail at some point in our lives, and for whatever reason, often one person can be left feeling hurt, confused…and sometimes looking for revenge. It may sound cynical but just being a little discerning about what information you allow girlfriends, boyfriends and even husbands, wives and civil partners access to can save you a whole lot of heartache of a different kind in the event a relationship breaks down.
ID theft protection doesn’t have to be a horror story; in fact the nightmare comes only after you’ve been unlucky enough to fall victim to this awful crime. Taking some, or all, of the steps listed above, whether it’s signing up with identity theft protection services, placing a freeze on your credit report, buying a safe to keep valuable documents in or even a hole punch to destroy bank statements and credit card slips before you throw them in the trash can go a long way towards making sure you’re doing everything you can to protect yourself, your family, your reputation and your home.
When you look at it objectively identity theft protection is a whole lot simpler than sorting out the aftermath of the actual crime of identity theft , so isn’t it about time you took some action and started making your hard earned money – and your good name – more difficult for someone to steal?