Identity theft comes in various forms, but the bottom line is that it involves people stealing information about you for their own gain without regard to the theft’s impact on you. Estimates as to its frequency vary, but there’s no disagreement that it’s widespread. Recovering from identity theft takes a lot of your time and can hit you in the wallet. There is a lot of useful information on the prevention of identity theft. I’ve found the Federal Trade Commission’s site on this to be clear and useful. Their four-step approach to protecting your identity follows.
Keeping Your Personal Information Secure Offline
- Lock your financial documents and records in a safe place at home and lock your wallet or purse in a safe place at work. Keep your information secure from roommates or workers who come into your home.
- Limit what you carry. When you go out, take only the identification, credit and debit cards you need. Leave your Social Security card at home. Make a copy of your Medicare card and black out all but the last four digits on the copy. Carry the copy with you — unless you are going to use your card at the doctor’s office.
- Before you share information at your workplace, a business, your child’s school, or a doctor’s office, ask why they need it, how they will safeguard it and the consequences of not sharing.
- Shred receipts, credit offers, credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks, bank statements, expired charge cards and similar documents when you don’t need them any longer.
- Destroy the labels on prescription bottles before you throw them out. Don’t share your health plan information with anyone who offers free health services or products.
- Take outgoing mail to post office collection boxes or the post office. Promptly remove mail that arrives in your mailbox. If you won’t be home for several days, request a vacation hold on your mail.
- When you order new checks, don’t have them mailed to your home, unless you have a secure mailbox with a lock.
- Consider opting out of prescreened offers of credit and insurance by mail. You can opt out for five years or permanently. To opt out, call 1-888-567-8688 or go to optoutprescreen.com. The three nationwide credit reporting companies operate the phone number and website. Prescreened offers can provide many benefits. If you opt out, you may miss out on some offers of credit.
Keeping Your Personal Information Secure Online
- Know who you share your information with. Store and dispose of your personal information securely.
- Be alert to impersonators. Make sure you know who is getting your personal or financial information. Don’t give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you’ve initiated the contact or know who you’re dealing with. If a company that claims to have an account with you sends email asking for personal information, don’t click on links in the email. Instead, type the company name into your web browser, go to their site and contact them through customer service. Or, call the customer service number listed on your account statement. Ask whether the company really sent a request.
- Safely dispose of personal information. Before you dispose of a computer, get rid of all the personal information it stores. Use a wipe utility program to overwrite the entire hard drive. Before you dispose of a mobile device, check your owner’s manual, the service provider’s website, or the device manufacturer’s website for information on how to delete information permanently and how to save or transfer information to a new device. Remove the memory or subscriber identity module (SIM) card from a mobile device. Remove the phone book, lists of calls made and received, voicemails, messages sent and received, organizer folders, web search history and photos.
- Encrypt Your Data. Keep your browser secure. To guard your online transactions, use encryption software that scrambles information you send over the internet. A “lock” icon on the status bar of your internet browser means your information will be safe when it’s transmitted. Look for the lock before you send personal or financial information online.
- Keep passwords private. Use strong passwords with your laptop, credit, bank and other accounts. Be creative: think of a special phrase and use the first letter of each word as your password. Substitute numbers for some words or letters. For example, “I want to see the Pacific Ocean” could become 1W2CtPo.
- Don’t overshare on social networking sites. If you post too much information about yourself, an identity thief can find information about your life, use it to answer ‘challenge’ questions on your accounts and get access to your money and personal information. Consider limiting access to your networking page to a small group of people. Never post your full name, Social Security number, address, phone number, or account numbers in publicly accessible sites.
Securing Your Social Security Number
- Keep a close hold on your Social Security number and ask questions before deciding to share it. Ask if you can use a different kind of identification. If someone asks you to share your SSN or your child’s, ask:
– Why they need it
– How it will be used
– How they will protect it
– What happens if you don’t share the number
- The decision to share is yours. A business may not provide you with a service or benefit if you don’t provide your number. Sometimes you will have to share your number. Your employer and financial institutions need your SSN for wage and tax reporting purposes. A business may ask for your SSN so they can check your credit when you apply for a loan, rent an apartment, or sign up for utility service.
Keeping Your Devices Secure
- Use screen lock. Always lock your computer when you walk away – even at home to develop good habits. For Windows PCs, simply hold down the Windows key (the 4-square window-pane key) and press L (for Lock).
- Protect sensitive information. Keep financial information on your laptop only when necessary. Don’t use an automatic login feature that saves your user name and password and always log off when you’re finished. That way, if your laptop is stolen, it will be harder for a thief to get at your personal information.
- Protect cell phones, laptops, etc. Don’t leave them unattended when out in public (coffee shops, restaurants, etc.).
- Use security software. Install anti-virus software, anti-spyware software and a firewall. Set your preference to update these protections often. Protect against intrusions and infections that can compromise your computer files or passwords by installing security patches for your operating system and other software programs.
- Avoid phishing emails. Don’t open files, click on links, or download programs sent by strangers. Opening a file from someone you don’t know could expose your system to a computer virus or spyware that captures your passwords or other information you type.
- Be wise about Wi-Fi. Before you send personal information over your laptop or smartphone on a public wireless network in a coffee shop, library, airport, hotel, or other public place, see if your information will be protected. If you use an encrypted website, it protects only the information you send to and from that site. If you use a secure wireless network, all the information you send on that network is protected.
If, despite your best efforts, your identity is stolen, you can mitigate the impact by taking certain steps. This can include placing a fraud alert in your credit reporting files and placing a credit freeze on your credit history. Guidepost Financial Planning would be pleased to discuss identity protection with you. Please visit our website or give us a call at 970.419.8212 so that we can discuss this important topic in a no-charge, no-obligation initial meeting.
This article is for informational purposes only. This website does not provide tax or investment advice, nor is it an offer or solicitation of any kind to buy or sell any investment products. Please consult your tax or investment advisor for specific advice.