For awhile identity theft dominated the headlines in Central Florida. People would open up their bank statements or go to an ATM and find that their money was gone. Thousands of dollars – just poof — disappeared.
Someone from Las Vegas had made purchases they never heard of, using their money. No one was immune. Reporters, businessmen and police officers all became victims, and all they did was put their ATM card in the wrong machine.
It’s that easy to suddenly have your identity stolen. Identity theft dominated the Federal Trade Commission’s complaint list. Thirty six percent of the number of complaints the agency received in 2006 were about identity theft. The losses total billions of dollars each year, while financial institutions are the ones that take the hit upfront, consumers indirectly pay through higher fees.
The best method of identity theft protection is vigilance. Start by checking your credit report and your bank statements regularly, and consider the services of companies like LifeLock and TrustedID which monitor public records and the three major credit bureaus.
However if this is something you would like to manage yourself, and not put it in the hand of some one else consider these simple steps:
* When going to an ATM be very careful and guard your PIN number. When you step up to the ATM make sure no one is looking over your shoulder or can see as you enter your pin number. Look around to make sure no one suspicious is hanging around the ATM, and for “skimmers” – electronic devices that read and record your account number and PIN. In the Central Florida case, police officers believed a skimmer was used. As a precaution use only bank or bank-branded ATMs.
* Remove your name from mailing lists of pre-approved credit cards by calling 888-5OPTOUT (888-567-8688). It’s toll free. Leaving your name on these lists makes it easy for thieves to steal envelopes from your mailbox and open up new accounts in your name. Then they can run up a huge bill. Another option is to get a locked mailbox.
* Thieves can also steal your identity from your discarded mail. It’s called dumpster diving, so shred all financial records, including old credit card receipts, bills or bank statements. Look for a shredder that chops the paper into confetti as oppose to one that creates long, thin strips. It’s more secure.
* Your computer, while helpful, can also be a doorway for thieves. Never respond to an email saying there is a problem and the bank needs your account information. It’s call phishing and scam artist use it by pretending to be banks, stores or government agencies.
* Protect the personal information on your computer by using strong passwords with a combination of letters, numbers and symbols. Make sure you have a firewall and software to protect you from spyware and viruses, and never download or install software from an unknown site or click on links in pop-up windows or in spam-emails.
* Finally never give out personal information, like your social security number over the phone or via e-mail. Also don’t carry your social security card in your wallet. It’s a big key to identity theft.
At first glance identity theft protection may seem like a lot of effort, but it’s nothing compared to the violation, fear and frustration you would feel if a thief took your identity.