Our modern society affords us many conveniences, but unfortunately there is a dark side to the technology that makes those amenities possible. It has given us a whole new category of crime: identity theft. Annually, almost 400,000 people have their identities stolen, according to the Federal Trade Commission. So, on this weekend when we honor working people, let’s talk about some ideas to help prevent someone from stealing everything you’ve worked so hard for.
Identity theft is a catch-all term that encompasses many crimes. Simply put, it is when someone wrongfully uses another individual’s personal information, usually for financial gain. One of the most common forms is when someone is able to obtain your credit card information and uses it to make purchases for themselves. Sometimes identity thieves will change the address on your account to redirect statements so you are unaware of the fraudulent purchases. Another way for identity thieves to exploit your credit is to open up new cards or take our loans in your name without your knowledge. Identity thieves might also attack your bank account by using your debit or ATM card. They will sometimes manufacture counterfeit checks and drain your account, or write bad checks in your name. As with credit, the thieves will sometimes open new accounts and write bad checks on those accounts as well. Identity theft isn’t always solely financial. Using your personal information may allow others to access your phone or wireless services. In extreme cases, the thieves might manufacture fraudulent identification and use that information with the police during an arrest.
Identity Theft can occur in a number of ways. It can be as simple as someone looking over your shoulder while you are at the ATM or copying your credit card information when you are making a purchase. They may obtain your information through the practice of “dumpster diving” or searching your trash. Some of the methods are more sophisticated, such as “skimming” where thieves place a device on an ATM or a gas pump that records and transmits the data from your credit or debit card. They will also use a method known as “phishing” where they send you a fake email that looks like it is coming from your bank or credit card company. The emails will often tell you that there is some kind of a problem with your account, and direct you to click on a link to clear it up. The link takes to a fraudulent website where your information is captured. Another way thieves obtain your data is through “pretexting” which is usually a phone call where the caller will use false pretenses to get your information. This happened to my parents recently. Someone called pretending to be their grandson saying he was in trouble and needed their help. They asked the caller for his name and he wouldn’t give it, so they knew it was a scam. Identity theft can also occur as a part of a more old-fashioned crime like a purse snatching or wallet theft.
Some simple steps will help to protect you. Don’t carry your social security number with your driver’s license. Only give your social security number when absolutely necessary. Don’t use any part of it as your user name or PIN. Never print it on your checks. Don’t ever give it to someone who contacts you through a phone solicitation. Sometimes you will need to give it, like when you are opening an account or applying for credit. Usually, these will be situations that you initiate. If a merchant demands it, as precondition of writing a check, or for some other reason, ask to use an alternate number such as your driver’s license number. If they won’t accept that, leave. When you open new accounts, use new PINs and passwords. Limit the number of cards that your carry and make copies of the front and back of each card and keep them in a secure place. Don’t give your credit card number to phone solicitors. Close accounts you are no longer using and check your credit report once a year. If you discover that you are a victim of identity theft, take action immediately. The Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov) can help you to find information on what to do next.
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The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.
Securities and Advisory services offered through LPL Financial, a registered investment advisor. Member FINRA/SIPC.