According to the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft is the most reported form of fraud. Identity theft and mail theft go hand-in-hand. While identity theft can involve the Internet and world wide web, most criminals don’t rely on technical savvy to steal personal information. They simply look for lost wallets, burglarize mailboxes, or dumpster dive for improperly disposed of records.
In 2008, Javelin Strategy & Research held a survey online to monitor trends in identity fraud. One of the important focuses of the survey was identifying how identity theft was initially accomplished: Of the 35% of victims who knew how their information was taken, more than 75% said it involved a physical method (lost wallet, stolen mail, burglarized mailbox, etc.) while only 14% indicated online methods (phising, e-mail scams, etc.).
“Criminals don’t have a bias toward technology. They will use any channel that works,” said James Van Dyke, president of Javelin Research.
To protect themselves against identity theft, consumers need to understand effective (and simple) methods of protection. Some strategies include using free anti-virus software on your computer, purchasing a locking mailbox, and maintaining awareness of best security practices.
Here is a list of ways to help protect yourself against mail and identity theft:
- Buy a cross-cut paper shredder. Shred any financial and personal documents to ensure that your information is not accessible when you throw it away. Sensitive documents include old billing statements and pre-approved credit applications. Also, shred credit card receipts as some merchants print your information on them.
- Protect your clients. If you work in a business that creates documents, take the responsibility to protect your clients by destroying documents before discarding them. For a business, identity theft can be just as damaging as personal identity theft.
- Be aware of your Credit and Debit cards. “Number Thieves” sometimes use cell phone cameras to take a record of your number while you’re using it at grocery stores or restaurants. An easy method of protection is to lay your card face down while waiting for the bill.
- Be aware of incoming mail. If you request a new credit card or identification in the mail, make sure to keep track of when you receive it. If you do not see the card in an appropriate time-frame, contact the issuing organization and have it canceled and resent. If you suspect your mail has been stolen, contact the USPS immediately and consider purchasing a locking mailbox.
- Close unused accounts. Do not keep open credit cards that remain unused and unmonitored. If you do not intend to use a card, cancel it.
- Use smart passwords. Put passwords on all your accounts. Make sure not to use common or easy to guess passwords that include your mother’s maiden name, your date of birth, etc. Best to make up an easy-to-remember but difficult-to-guess fictitious word.
- Hold businesses & institutions accountable. Confirm how your personal information is stored and protected by businesses you interact with. Ask financial institutions, doctors’ offices, etc., what they do with your private information and ensure that it is stored with security and sensitivity, and disposed of properly.
- Do not carry unneeded information on your person. Remove excess credit and ID cards from your wallet or purse. Do not carry any information you do not need and use on a daily basis.
- Protect your social security number. Confirm why your social security number is needed on any application, and how that information is used and protected after you release it to someone.
- Be cautious on the phone. Do not give out your personal information over the phone if you do not recognize the business you are dealing with. If you feel any sense of doubt, ask for a number and contact information for the person requesting the information and contact them to provide only the necessary information.
- Do not put telephone numbers on you checks. If a business requests a phone number, use discretion, and write it in the notes section of the check on a case by case basis.
- Opt for photo cards. Request banking and credit cards that include photo identification.
- Be safe shopping online. Do not store your credit card number on shopping sites. It may seem secure, but you may accidentally release your password to a site without knowing it and give away your credit card information at the same time.
- Use custom ID numbers. Most identification groups (health care, insurance, etc.) can utilize a different identification number instead of your social security number. Using a custom identification number reduces the number of people who have access to your social security number and personal information.
- Monitor your banking and credit card statements. Check line items (and those darn monthly charges) to make sure that you have authorized all the charges on your account. Contact your banking institution immediately if you notice anything suspicious.
- Check your credit every six months. You can gain a free copy of your credit report during most credit application processes (credit card applications, mortgage, car financing, etc.). Review your information carefully.
- Keep your computer secure. Utilize password options and do not store financial data on a mobile computer (laptop, PDA, phone). If you do need to store sensitive data, encrypt the information with the proper software.
- Secure your home. Store personal information at home in a secure location, preferably a locking file cabinet or personal safe.
- Don’t use the same passwords. Be sure that all of your utility accounts and financial services have DIFFERENT passwords. If one account has security breached, it will prevent all of your accounts from being hijacked.
- The Next Step: Ordering Your Credit Report. The three major credit bureaus have current toll-free phone numbers for ordering credit reports.
- EXPERIAN: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742)
- EQUIFAX: 1-800-685-1111
- TRANS UNION: 1-800-888-4213
If you think you are the victim of identify theft, ISSUE A CREDIT FREEZE. A credit freeze disables your credit file, requiring extra verification to open new accounts or access personal information. Typical credit freezes last 90 days. You can request a credit freeze by contacting any of the three credit agencies above.