The commercials about identity theft are cute, but the subject matter is very serious.  Identity theft can cause years of agony, including problems obtaining credit, the aggravation of having to clean up one’s financial report and even legal problems.  According to the FBI, identity theft is the fastest-growing crime in America, with more than 10 million victims a year.

Just as we protect ourselves from the elements on the mountain by applying sun screen, layering cloths and using boot heaters, by taking a few simple precautions we can also protect ourselves from financial harm in the event our personal information finds its way into untoward hands.

  • The next time you order checks have only your initials instead of your first and last name put on them.  If your checkbook is lost or stolen, anyone attempting to use one of your checks won’t know if you sign your checks with just your name or with just your initials.
  • NEVER have your phone number printed on your checks.  If you have a P.O. Box, use that instead of your home address.  If you do not have a P.O. Box, use your work address, and NEVER have your social security number printed on your checks.  You can always hand write it if it is necessary, but if it’s printed, anyone can gain access to it.
  • If you write a check to pay on your credit card accounts, don’t put the complete account number on the “For” line.  Instead, just put the last four numbers.  The credit card company knows the rest of the number, and anyone who might be handling your check as it passes through all the check processing channels won’t have access to it.
  • Do not sign the back of your credit cards.  Instead, put “PHOTO ID REQUIRED.”
  • Shred or cut up all credit card receipts, old bank statements and bills before throwing them away.  Consider buying a cross-cutting shredder—they cost a little more but are well worth the expense;
  • Contact your creditor or service provider if you notice odd charges or if expected bills don’t arrive
  • Update your computer virus software, use a secure browser, and install a firewall program and NEVER respond to notices, “YOUR COMPUTER IS INFECTED WITH A VIRUS—SCAN NOW!
  • NEVER give out personal information via the phone, mail, or Internet unless YOU initiated contact.
  • When you have a moment, take all the contents of your wallet and put them on a photocopy machine.  Copy both sides of your drivers’ license, credit cards, insurance cards, etc.  If lost or stolen, you will not only know exactly what you had in your wallet, but also all of your account numbers along with the phone numbers to call and cancel.  Even better, create a PDF file of that information, but in the absence of that capability, be sure to keep the photocopy of your information in a safe place.  And for those who have one, it’s not a bad idea to carry a photocopy of your passport whenever you travel.

We’ve all heard the horror stories about missing drivers’ licenses, credit cards and passports, and have been told we should cancel our credit cards immediately if we believe they’ve been lost or stolen.  But the key is having the toll free numbers and your card numbers handy so you know whom to call, so be sure to keep those numbers where you can find them.

  • File a police report immediately in the jurisdiction where your credit cards, etc., were stolen.  This indicates to your credit providers you were diligent, and this is a first step toward an investigation if there ever is one.
  • But perhaps the most important steps of all are: Contact the Social Security Administration and any of the three consumer reporting companies immediately to place a fraud alert on your name and Social Security number.  Equifax: 1-800-525-6285;; or Experian: 1-888-397-3742;; or Trans Union: 1-800-680-7289;

The company you call is required to contact the other two, which will place an alert on their versions of your report, too and be sure to follow up with them to ensure the alert was placed.  The benefit to you is that by placing an alert company that checks your credit knows your information was stolen, and as a result must contact you by phone before authorizing new credit.

Keep in mind too, that once you place the fraud alert in your file, you’re entitled to order one free copy of your credit report from each of the three consumer reporting companies, and, if you ask, only the last four digits of your Social Security number will appear on your credit reports.  And lastly, after you receive your credit reports, be certain to review them carefully.

Quote of the day:  “You can’t keep trouble from coming, but you needn’t give it a chair to set on.”

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