What Is Identity Theft?
When an Identify Thief has a combination (although not all are needed)
of your name, home address, social security number, date of birth, mother's
maiden name, bank account number, or credit card number, the thief can
fraudulently access your credit and bank accounts, and can also establish
credit lines without your knowledge.
One can obtain your personal information in numerous ways. Someone may
be looking over your shoulder at an ATM machine, watching you punch in
a code on a computer or telephone, going through your garbage can (dumpster
diving) looking for bank receipts or other information, or stealing from
your mailbox, especially offers for new credit cards.
More commonly than not, a person is a victim of identity theft as a result
of handing over a Driver's License to someone who has no reason or business
to see it. We'll get back to this one further down in the reading.
First let's consider a few basic pointers on how to minimize the risk
of identity theft and protect your personal privacy. These tips are fundamental.
If you fall into my category of "truly paranoid," the process
becomes even more fun. But let's start with the easy stuff:
- Get a paper shredder for home and use it, especially for ATM and
credit card receipts, which should never be simply tossed in a trashcan.
- Keep a photocopy or a listing of your Driver's License, Passport,
and all your credit cards in a safe place at home.
- Minimize the use of credit cards. Get rid of all but one or two.
Get into the habit of paying cash.
- Request a copy of your personal credit report from each of the three
major credit reporting agencies (more detail in the section titled
"Credit Reporting Agencies"): Equifax, 800-759-5979; Experian,
800-353-0809; and Trans Union, 800-680-7293. Review them carefully
and report any discrepancies without delay. Perform this exercise
at least annually.
- Exercise the "Opt-Out" options with all of the above three
credit-reporting bureaus, all banks where you maintain accounts, and
all companies with which you have credit cards, loans or mortgages.
The "Opt-Out" option is where you are formally requesting
that your name and personal information not be given to any affiliates
or other companies for any purposes, including notifying you of any
offers or promotions. The "Opt-Out" option will begin the
process of getting your name off the databases (more detail in "Credit
Reporting Agencies section").
- Use only a secured mailbox or Post Office box. Does your existing
mailbox allow thieves to just reach in and help themselves? When you
mail a letter, do you leave it for the postman to pick up from your
unsecured mailbox? Wake up! If you haven't already been a victim,
you are wide open to becoming a victim of identity theft. Personally,
I highly recommend investing the nominal fee for a Post Office box.
Not only does it provide a secure means for your incoming mail, but
by listing the P.O. box as your mailing address, you minimize the
number of people who have access to your physical home address. At
the very least, use a secured mailbox with a lock and key for incoming
mail and always drop your outgoing mail in an official mailbox.
- Never carry any written form of your computer passwords, ATM PIN
numbers or social security number on your person or anywhere someone
else can get to them.
- Exercise care when entering your PIN number at an ATM machine.
- If you write checks, include ONLY your name printed on the check.
No address. No phone number.
- When ordering personal checks, arrange to pick them up at the bank
rather than have them mailed to your home address.
- Last, but certainly not least, NEVER give your Driver's License
to anyone other than a Police Officer, Division of Motor Vehicles
Officer, or (if you must) a Car Rental Agency. If you are specifically
required to present a GOVERNMENT ID (checking into a hotel, airline,
or for proof-of-age) it is MUCH SAFER to present a passport. Why?
While both your Passport and Driver's License show your date of birth,
your passport does not show your home address.