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Protecting Your Identity

One of my favorite things about teaching the class I teach (Financial Counseling) is the opportunity to review, on a regular basis, the basics of Personal Finance. It reminds me of some of the gaps in my personal financial plan.

I know we have discussed identity theft a number of times in the past, but it has been on my mind a lot lately and I have taken some steps to further protect my identity. I encourage you to review the following suggestions to see where you can improve and better protect your identity.

  • Have a Cross-Cut Shredder
    You should shred any document from a financial institution, any pre-approved credit card offers, and any other information with your information on it. Shredders that shred in long strips don’t work – thieves can tape together the strips (and will tape them together) and get your information or apply for credit. Some sites suggest simply tearing up and throwing away pre-approved credit card offers. Does that work? Check out this site for your answer:
    http://www.cockeyed.com/citizen/creditcard/application.shtml
  • Opt-out of Receiving Pre-Screened Credit Card Offers
    On the website https://www.optoutprescreen.com/ you can opt-out of receiving pre-approved credit card offers. If you don’t want to do that online there is a phone number to call or an address to write to on the website. Eliminating these from your mailbox is one less thing for thieves to be able to steal.
  • Mail
    Speaking of mail – if possible it is best to have your mail delivered to a locked box, but if you can’t do that be sure you know approximately what time the mail carrier comes and retrieve your mail promptly. Be sure to forward your mail to a new address when you move, and place your mail on vacation hold when you are away.
  • Social Security Number
    Don’t carry anything with your Social Security number printed on it. Check your wallet or purse to see if you are carrying your social security card OR any other item with your social security number printed on it, like your Driver’s License (go get a new one if it has your social security number on it) or an insurance card. Thieves really only need this one piece of information to steal your identity, so taking steps to keep it safe will help you keep your identity safe.
  • Phishing
    Never reply to e-mails for requests for any personal information, even if it looks like it is coming from your bank. Your bank will never request personal information via e-mail.
  • Credit Freeze (or Security Freeze)
    One of the most effective things you can do to protect your identity is to freeze your credit.  Here is a statement from the Equifax website: “A security freeze is designed to prevent the information in your credit file from being reported to others, such as credit grantors and other companies, except those exempted by law or those for whom you contacted us and requested that we temporarily lift the security freeze or those that access during a period of time when you requested we temporarily lift the security freeze.” What this means is that if a thief does steal your identity they can’t open new credit because your record is frozen. This will also prevent you from opening new credit unless you plan ahead and “unthaw” your credit report for a period of time.  Credit freezes and unthaws do cost money, but think of the money spent like an insurance policy. In Missouri it is just $5 for each freeze.  Here are the websites to freeze your credit report:
    https://www.freeze.equifax.com/Freeze/jsp/SFF_PersonalIDInfo.jsp
    https://annualcreditreport.transunion.com/fa/securityFreeze/landing
    http://www.experian.com/consumer/security_freeze.html
  • Checking Your Credit Report
    It is important that you check your credit report on a regular basis. You can get one free copy of each of your credit reports annually by visiting www.annualcreditreport.com. A strategy I use is to check one of the reports every 4 months – that way I am checking it out on a regular basis. If there are any errors or accounts you don’t recognize you need to take steps right away to get it taken care of.
  • Cash
    A few months ago I got a call at 7:30 in the morning on a Saturday from the Fraud Department at my bank. My credit card number had been used for an online purchase that seemed uncharacteristic (it was a dating site), and the Fraud Department was calling to find out if my wife or I had used our card there. We had not, so they immediately closed down the card and issued a new number. When we tried to figure out how it happened we realized that the most likely scenario was when we used our debit card the last time we ate out. When the waiter/waitress takes your card and disappears with it for 2-3 minutes it is easy for them to snap a photo of the front and back using their cell phone. We now pay with cash anytime we eat out.

If you have been the victim of identity theft visit the Federal Trade Commission’s website at www.ftc.gov/idtheft where you will find a list of steps to take to deter, detect and defend against identity theft.