We’ve probably all heard these words before. “I’m sorry, your card has been declined.” Whether at a restaurant, department store, or at the supermarket buying groceries, the feeling of panic and confusion immediately sets in and our first thought is there has to be some mistake.
And sometimes there is, sometimes the problem is easily fixed right there and then. You’ve somehow slid the wrong card, there was a problem with the credit card machine, or you simply didn’t have enough funds in your account to cover the transaction at that time.
But what if it wasn’t that simple? What if the problem was none of the above? And, after further investigation, you discover that someone has tampered with your account and your personal information has now been compromised. You find out that your name, date of birth, Social Security number–all of it–is now in the hands of a thief. So the nightmare begins.
My decision to take a closer look at identity theft and its aftermath came after a close friend of mine recently had one of her personal checks cashed by a total stranger–and for quite a tidy sum at that. The bold thief did not use a blank check as one might suppose, but rather one that had already been signed by her and made out to one of her creditors. The check was altered to change the name of the payee and dollar amount. The process for her, of having to file a criminal report and getting the matter resolved with the bank, proved to be a long and arduous one. It was two whole months before she finally got the money back.
She is not alone in her experience. Identity theft happens every day, all around us, to people of all walks of life regardless of their age, color, sex or race–and we all like to think it won’t happen to us, until it does. As its name suggests, identity theft can leave you literally having to go to lengths to prove you really are who you say you are, all because someone else is out there pretending to be you.
I mean, imagine someone calling you up and telling you that you’ve accumulated thousands of dollars worth of debt after someone else fraudulently used your credit card to make unauthorized purchases, or being pulled over in a traffic stop only to find out that you have not one but several unpaid tickets–or worse, a warrant out for your arrest–all because someone used your identity to obtain a driver’s license.
And the longer you take to figure out what’s happening, the more devastating it can be, as was the case with one victim I heard about in my research. When he finally did make the discovery, it was several months later and the damage to his credit was brutal.
You might be reading this and thinking to yourself, “Well gee, I already knew all of that,” which is how I felt until it hit so close to home and I had to scratch my head and realize this could have easily been me.
When it’s just a random, faceless person out there we hear about in the news, sure we empathize, but the case feels so remote and far removed from us that after a while we become complacent, and sometimes even careless, regarding our own day-to-day affairs. So we should be more alert. Identity theft does not announce itself or give us a head start to prepare for its onslaught, nor can we treat it like we might jury duty–and hope “we won’t get picked.” Identity theft is a problem we should take proactive measures against.
And even though we cannot make ourselves one hundred percent foolproof from becoming victims (I’ve checked, there’s no vaccine), we can take preventative measures to secure ourselves and minimize the risk of theft. To me, some of it is just good old common sense and some of it may seem a bit extreme–but as the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The following are just a few safety measures we can take; it only scratches the surface I know, but it’s a good place to start in being a bit more mindful of our overall financial safety.
- Invest in a good shredder, preferably one that cross-shreds, since truly determined thieves have nothing but time on their hands and would not be deterred by a few hundred strips of paper. Shred important financial statements including medical ones. If it’s something a thief can use against you, shred it.
- Do not dispose of important paperwork away from home.
- Be careful about putting bills with checks in the mailbox. This was okay years ago, but nowadays not so much. If a thief gets to that mailbox ahead of the mail carrier, there goes some very valuable information to use to commit fraud. Instead, invest in a mailbox that you can lock with a key–this might be a better option.
- Take your Social Security card out of your purse or wallet and put it in a secure place along with all of your other personal documents. You do not need to be walking around with your Social Security card all day. Don’t make it easy for thieves to find your Social Security number and unleash a world of hurt, using your number to apply for credit, gain employment, open bank accounts, and even file taxes.
- Reduce the amount of active credit cards you have. More cards mean more statements coming in and more bills going out. With two cards or less, it’s easier to keep track of activity and spot inconsistencies.
- Always keep your checkbook in a secure place. Never leave it in the car while you run errands, on your desk at work, or any place where it can fall into the wrong hands. Even boxes of blank checks should be kept safe and out of sight.
- Beware of phishing. Identity thieves are out there surfing the internet, “phishing” to get innocent victims like you and me to give out our personal information, using phony websites that look oh-so-real, and providing links for us to click on to take us to even darker places where they can try and pry the information from us. Invest in an antivirus program or a firewall that makes it difficult for hackers to access personal information on your computer.
- Place a “Fraud Alert” with the major credit reporting agencies so you can be alerted when a request is made for credit using your name and information–this makes lenders and creditors go the extra mile before extending credit in your name.
- Secure PIN numbers and passwords, and avoid using numbers that might be easy or obvious. A thief can unlock all types of information connected to your account using your password, so make it harder to decipher by using a combination of letters, numbers and special characters.
- Monitor your financial accounts regularly. Nowadays you don’t have to wait for a monthly statement to come in the mail, you can check your account online–daily.
The Federal Trade Commission website is a good source of information on how to avoid identity theft and what to do if it happens to you. And, DCPL has books of interest too.
Identity Theft by Rachael Hanel
Stealing Your Life: The Ultimate Identity Theft Prevention Plan by Frank W. Abagnale
The Con: How Scams Work, Why You’re Vulnerable, and How to Protect Yourself by James Munton and Jelita McLeod