How to Prevent Identity Theft
Identity theft has gotten a great deal of media coverage in the last few years. It is a crime that has a long history, but with modern electronic communications opening so many new ways to obtain information, and the desperation that comes with the current economic malaise, it may be a worse danger than ever. To protect yourself, you’ll need to know what identity theft is, and how criminals go about it.
Identity theft is one person’s use of another person’s personally identifying information, without permission, to apply for credit, get a telephone number, rent an apartment or any number of other transactions where one’s identity and records are checked. This information can include names, social security numbers, and credit card numbers. Often, the crimes go undetected until the victim is contacted by a debt collector, sees unfamiliar charges on a credit card statement, or checks their credit report.
There are, unfortunately, many ways an identity thief can access your information. Some ways have been around a long time, such as rummaging through trash for credit card statements or other papers with your identifying information. Another way of doing about the same thing is by submitting a change of address form at the post office, so that your mail is diverted to them. They can also simply steal a wallet or a purse, or gain access to personnel records at an employer. Using a false pretense can also sometimes get them access from banks, telephone companies, or other sources.
Of course, newer methods have cropped up in the internet age. Ubiquitous credit and debit cards have allowed some more technologically-oriented thieves to gather information by attaching special storage devices to card readers. Phishing sites on the internet have also become infamous of late, offering entirely fraudulent services or imitating legitimate providers to trick you out of your information with pop-ups or spam.
What will these villains do with your identity once they get it? They could open a new credit card account and not pay the bills. Any delinquent accounts will appear in your credit report, and collections agencies may come after you. They could also use your existing credit card to make purchases, even changing the address associated with it so you aren’t alerted by the bill. They could also run up charges on your phone or wireless accounts, or get these or utilities in your name. They could open up bank accounts, take out loans, or even simply drain your existing accounts. Indeed, with a few numbers and names, an identity thief could do about anything you could think of requiring that information. Drivers licenses, jobs, renting, getting government benefits, even giving your name to police if they’re arrested are all possibilities. That’s why it’s so important to do what you can to prevent identity theft.
Some steps in this direction are fairly simple. Don’t put documents with essential information in the trash whole. Shred it, if possible, or at least tear it up if you don’t have a shredder. Another common-sense step is being careful with your cards, wallets and purses. Don’t leave such important things unwatched. It doesn’t take long to swipe a purse, or even to extract a single card from it. Look out for unexpected attachments in card readers, as these could have been put on with criminal intent. Finally, never give your personal information to a Website that you have not done some research on first, and watch out for suspicious e-mails from your creditors or others you do business with. Most legitimate businesses will never ask you to send any passwords or account numbers via e-mail. Even if an e-mail seems legitimate, be cautious about following any links. If this is a company whose URL you know, make sure it is correct. Better yet, go to their site directly rather than using the link, to make sure whatever is claimed in the e-mail is legitimate. Some websites can cause harm just by your visiting them.
There are also services now on the market that help protect against identity theft by closely monitoring any activity done in your name. Of course, they aren’t free, but unfortunately, even with the steps mentioned above, it is possible that someone else who has your information won’t be as careful. With the Federal Trade Commission estimating that as many as 9 million people have their identities stolen each year, any protection you can get may really pay off in the end.