Identity theft is real, and with all the accounts affected by the Equifax breach, it is imperative that we as consumers protect our identity. Your personal information is a valuable resource for identity thieves, scammers, and even corporations. Data breaches of customer databases and payment processing systems at retailers highlight the importance of protecting your privacy and making sure companies with which you do business do the same.
Identity thieves steal your personal information to commit fraud. They can damage your credit status and cost you time and money to restore your good name. You may not know that you are a victim of identity theft until you experience a financial consequence (mystery bills, credit collections, denied loans) down the road from actions that the thief has taken with your identity. Follow these tips to protect yourself.
- Secure your Social Security Card. Don’t carry it in your wallet or write your number on your checks. Only give out your social security number when absolutely necessary. In the industry, I work in, it amazes me how many people are ready and willing to give you their social security number versus their account number.
- Protect your pin. Never write a PIN on a credit or debit card or on a slip of paper in your wallet.
- Watch out for “shoulder surfers.” I have no problem telling the person behind me in line to please back up as I enter my card information, and you shouldn’t either. Yes, I have been met with some nasty words or looks, but at the end of the day, it is my responsibility to protect myself. Sheild the keypad when typing in your PIN number.
- Be skeptical. Don’t respond to unsolicited requests for personal information (your name, date of birth, social security number, or bank account number) by phone, mail or online.
- Collect mail promptly. Ask the post office to put your mail on hold when you are away from home more than a day or two.
- Pay attention to your billing cycles. If bills or financial statements are late, contact the sender.
- Keep your receipts. Promptly compare receipts with account statements. Watch for unauthorized transactions.
Beware of synthetic identity theft
Synthetic identity theft is a more complicated version of identity theft. In traditional identity theft, the thief steals all of the personal information of one person to create a new identity. With synthetic identity theft, the thief steals pieces of information from different people to create a new identity. For example, the thief may steal one person’s name, and use someone else’s address to create a brand new identity. The thief can then use this fraudulent identity to apply for credit, rent an apartment, or make major purchases.
Unfortunately, synthetic identity theft is difficult to detect because the fraud isn’t directly tied to just one person. Fraud alerts and monitoring services would not be able to stop or prevent these scams. Also, children’s social security numbers are often targeted in these frauds, because no one would be checking their credit scores until they are much older.
While you cannot prevent synthetic identity theft, you should still get copies of your credit report to check for accounts you did not open. Also, contact the credit reporting agencies to ask if there is a fragmented file ( a sub-account that uses your social security number but not your name) attached to your main credit file. If this is the case, you may be the victim of synthetic identity theft. Report all cases of identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Spear phishing is another version of phishing where the scammer already has some of your personal information, often a result of hacking another company’s network, The scammer will then send you an urgent email that seems to be from a company that you already do business. The message will require you to click on a link that directs you to a fake, but realistic, webpage to confirm an account number, or install malware on your computer. Remember, legitimate companies never ask for your password or account number via email. If you are not sure whether the email is trustworthy, call the company directly and forward the email to the firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some other things you can do to protect yourself from identity theft is tear up or shred unwanted receipts, credit offers, account statements and expired cards to prevent dumpster divers from getting your personal information. Store personal information in a safe place at home and at work. Install firewalls and virus-detection software on your home computer. Create complex passwords that identity thieves cannot guess easily. Order your credit report once a year. Check it more frequently if you suspect someone has gained access to your account information.
If you are the victim of identity theft you should:
- Report it to your financial institution. Call the phone number on your account statement or on the back of your credit or debit card.
- Report the fraud to your local police. Keep a copy of the police report, which will make it easier to prove your case to creditors and retailers.
- Contact the credit reporting agencies. Ask them to flag your account with a fraud alert, which asks merchants not to grant new credit without your approval.
The FTC recommends that you create an identity theft report if your ID is stolen. This report will help you deal with the credit reporting agencies and companies that extended credit to the identity thief using your name. First, report the crime to the FTC and print a copy of the details. This detailed report is also called an ID theft affidavit. Then file the crime with your local police department and get a copy of that report. Together, your ID theft affidavit and your police report make up your ID theft report.
Protect Your Privacy
Your personal data is always being shared. Companies, known as data brokers, compile information about your income, family size, email addresses, stores and websites you visit, the brands you buy, credit cards used, hobbies, and your demographic information to create a profile about you and your lifestyle.
Some of the information you give willingly, but other bits of your personal information are collected in ways you may not realize. Data brokers often collect location-based data from the GPS on your mobile phone, the fitness tracking bracelets that we wear, or from certain apps. These brokers then analyze all of your information, develop scoring and models to help them understand your behavior. Then they sell these consumer profiles to retailers and marketers.
Retailers use your information to offer targeted special promotions, customize the ads you see, and even the prices you are charged for items. While this can be a bonus and help you get good deals, it all comes at the cost of your personal privacy. Unlike credit reports or scores, you cannot access or review the data files that have been created about you, or even know the data brokerage companies you should contact to correct inaccuracies.
These data reports can also result in discrimination, where some consumers are only targeted with high-interest loans or inferior financial products. There are steps you can take to protect your privacy.
- If you apply for store loyalty cards, do not include your full name so that it, and your purchase behavior, cannot be connected to your other consumer profiles.
- Do you want to keep your purchase behavior private? Consider using cash rather than electronic payment options.
- Maintain a separate email address for your coupons and promotions from retailers.
- Be careful about what you post on social media. Data brokers may scrape information you post to enhance the information that they have on your consumer profile.
- Disable cookies when shopping online, to prevent companies from tracking your online browsing behavior.
- Beware of using cell phones in stores or using public Wi-Fi in a store. By using these networks, stores may know which items you looked at and which aisles you visited.
- Look for privacy statements on websites, sales materials and forms you complete. If a website claims to follow a set of established voluntary standards, read the standards. Don’t assume it provides the level of privacy you want.
- Ask how your personal information will be stored and used.
- Only provide the purchase date, model and serial numbers, and your contact information on warranty registration forms.
- Opt-out if you don’t want the company to share your email address with other companies.
Check with your state or local consumer agency to find out whether any state laws help protect your privacy. Some companies and industry groups have also adopted voluntary policies that address privacy concerns.
Finally, remember privacy is no longer private anymore. They, whoever they are, are watching. Take the necessary steps to protect your identity and your privacy.