ID theft covers a wide range of crimes, from someone misusing your account or starting a new one in your name, to using your information to get false documentation or undeserved medical or government benefits.
The fallout can go far beyond money, says Adam Levin, a former New Jersey consumer affairs chief who is the founder of idt911.com.
“You can be mistakenly arrested, find yourself on a terrorist watch list, have your life in jeopardy as you lie on a stretcher outside an emergency room, be denied a job, lose a security clearance or face a life without getting access to credit,” Levin says.
Here’s how you can protect yourself from becoming a part of any of these nightmares:
DUMPSTER DIVING ISN’T DEAD
A shredder should be your new best friend. While lots of ID theft is electronic, via email trickery and fake websites, you need to protect the paper around you. If you don’t need to save a document, shred it. Anything listing your date of birth, Social Security number or bank account number should be shredded, says Trooper Jeff Flynn, of the New Jersey State Police, whose website (njsp.org/tech/identity.html) offers ID theft protection tips. “When you get solicitations for credit cards in the mail, if you don’t shred it, someone can get that application and can get an account in your name.”
Whether you have a lot of online financial transactions or you do things the old-fashioned way, experts recommend you start by minimizing your risk of exposure. Don’t carry anything you don’t need on your person. Leave your Social Security card (and those of your family members) at home, Levin says, and limit the number of credit and debit cards you carry.
When you’re online, be smart. Install the most advanced firewall and download the most sophisticated anti-virus software on your smartphone and computer. Then, when you’re online, don’t get tricked into clicking on that cute puppy unless you know where it’s coming from. “Never click on a link or a picture unless you know or are completely familiar with the person or organization that sent it,” says Levin. “Even then, be wary because (the sender also) may have been compromised. Better to go directly to the website and carefully type in the URL.”
You also need to be careful with personal information you share on social media.
“That information can be used to learn your password, such as your parents’ names and your pet’s name,” Flynn says. “There are things that people put out innocently, and criminals use that to try to crack passwords.” Flynn recommends creating complicated passwords for different accounts and different sites.
Next, monitor your accounts. This doesn’t cost much, if anything. Ask your banks, credit card companies, and even your employer about credit monitoring services. And make monitoring your credit report a part of your routine.
Once a year, get a free copy of your credit report at annualcreditreport.com. Make sure to type the URL correctly, though, because there are copycat sites with similar names that will charge you — or worse. When you get the reports, read them carefully to make sure all the accounts are yours.
Take it a step further and check your bank and credit card accounts daily to make sure the transactions are correct. Many banks, credit unions and credit card companies that offer monitoring services will alert you via voice mail, email or text whenever there’s activity on your account, Levin says.
“Many fraudsters make a small charge before they try to put through larger ones, or run small charges in the hope that you won’t notice,” says Levin. “It’s a good idea to ask to be notified about all activity. A little inconvenience can help thwart a larger, costly, issue like identity theft.”
IF THE WORST HAPPENS
If you see suspicious activity on a credit card or bank account, contact the financial institution immediately.
If you think your identity has been stolen, contact your local police department, Flynn says. Then, call the financial institutions that handle all your credit and bank accounts and ask that your accounts be frozen. Also, reach out to the three credit bureaus — Experian, TransUnion and Equifax — and ask them to alert you if anyone tries to open an account in your name.
But remember, you can do everything right and still be a victim of ID theft.
“If you are on the wrong database at the wrong moment when the wrong person gains unauthorized access, your information can be exposed and you will be ripe for victimization,” Levin says.