Over the past few years, identity theft has become a rampant problem. It is important to stay vigilant so as not to fall victim to one of the many scams going on. About half a million Americans become victims of identity thefts each year. It is very difficult to recover financially or to even fix your credit once it has been ruined.
Your Social Security number is probably your most important identification information. It is the main information that banks and other financial institutions use for opening lines of credit. You might receive a phone call from someone who supposedly represents a bank, asking you for your social security number, or even an e-mail from a credit card company which sounds legitimate. Do not disclose any personal information, period. The correct way to handle such a situation is to call the financial institution on your own and talk to them. That way you can be sure that you are actually releasing such sensitive information only where it is supposed to go to.
Another way thieves are getting your information is through e-mail “phishing” (pronounced “fishing”). After opening an e-mail, you are asked to click on a link which will redirect you to a Web site that looks very similar to the Web site of a financial institution or even a popular store. You are then asked to enter personal information. This is very common during the holidays, so beware!
Order your credit report. You have the right to a free annual report from any of the three major credit report companies: Equifax, Experian and Trans Union. You can get this free credit report by going to www.AnnualCreditReport.com or by calling (877) 322-8228. Next, you should thoroughly review your credit report and look for anything that seems suspicious. This is a critical step because these errors can signal that you have been a victim of identity fraud and have serious consequences. The U.S Public Interest Research Groups reports that one in four credit reports contains errors serious enough to cause consumers to be denied credit, a loan, an apartment or home loan or even a job.
Another step to take is to order your earnings statement from the Social Security office once a year and carefully check for anything suspicious. If someone else is using your social security number, it will certainly be obvious.
People have the tendency to throw away mail without being careful. It is important to shred all financial papers, such as credit card or even bank statements. These papers contain valuable information such as your account numbers and that’s all someone needs in order to use your credit card.
You should also limit the amount of important papers and credit cards you carry with you. It is easy to get pickpocketed or even lose your wallet. Some thieves actually target people specifically for that reason. If you do lose your wallet, the minute you realize it, cancel all credit cards and do monitor your credit.
Always keep a copy of all the important papers you keep in your wallet such as your driver’s license and anything else that might be relevant. Then, if your wallet is stolen or lost, you will have all the information needed to close all your accounts.
Another recommendation is to subscribe to a credit report monitoring program. Many banks have started offering such a service for a monthly fee. It might be worth looking into that option. If there is a credit card you are not using, cancel it. Having an unused credit card lying around is just asking for trouble.
Each month, you should go over your credit card and bank statements carefully. If you notice anything suspicious, do call the bank. Usually, when there is any surge of activity on your credit card, the bank or credit card company will notify you immediately.
When sending out checks through the mail, use indelible ink. Thieves may be able to doctor the checks by washing out the ink. Also, remember not to print your social security on the checks; your account number for the bill you are trying to pay is sufficient.
In order to avoid third parties getting your financial information for advertising purposes you should remove your name from marketing lists. You can actually do this by contacting the three major credit reporting companies (see above). The less access people have to your information, the better off you are.
Hopefully, following these steps will help in safeguarding your identity, but if you do become a victim of identity theft, immediately contact the fraud departments of any one of the three credit reporting companies mentioned earlier to place a fraud alert on your credit report. Then file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Use common sense and make copies of any correspondence because it is always important to leave a paper trail!
Joanne Djele, MSW is a social worker in the Musicians’ Assistance Program.