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Tips for protecting yourself from ID theft

The best defense against identity theft is a good offense. Therefore, here are some prevention tips.

Around the house

Shred any and all unwanted credit card offers, or, indeed, any no-longer-necessary personal papers with personal information on them. Be careful as to who house-sits if you are away. You might hide unused checks, but it only takes a used check with the routing number on it to open the door to theft. (Remember Frank "Catch Me if You Can" Abagnale, Jr.? All it takes is some check-washing ability.) The best policy: Keep personal papers locked away when not actually using them.

Do not place outgoing mail containing personal information in your home's mail box.

If you live in an area where the mail carrier picks up mail from your mail box, do not place outgoing mail containing personal information (a credit card payment, for example) in the box. Take it to a mail box. If you have reason to think mail might easily be stolen from your mailbox, rent a post office box.

There is no need to put the full credit-card number on a check used to pay the account. Your credit card provider knows your number. Simply put the last four digits. Along this same line, do not have your social security number printed on your checks. Never, never, never. Do not have your social security number on your driver's license. When depositing a check to a personal bank account, do not include the bank's routing number. A short identifying number (the last four digits, for example) should suffice.

Family members can often be identity thieves, sorry to say. A drug addict, a compulsive gambler, a person with "champagne tastes on a beer budget" often cannot resist temptation. Unfortunately, these persons trade on the family tie to protect them; even more unfortunate, other family members often pressure the victim to take no action.

If you bank or pay bills on the Internet, monitor your accounts regularly so you will readily detect any suspicious activity. Many persons have signed up for credit-monitoring services. Others feel this is unnecessary because by law persons are entitled to a free credit report annually. If you decide to order your own credit reports, be extremely cautious that you are ordering from the legitimate site. This is an individual matter. If you shop online, shop only from a trusted site. You will see a small lock at the bottom of the page, and the secure site's URL will begin https://. Some consumers have one card they use only for online shopping.

Take a photocopy (front and back) of all the credit cards, health cards, etc., that you carry with you. Then, if your wallet is stolen, you have all the information to notify creditors, bank, etc.

Your computer

Any computer use should be with a hard-to-guess password.

Be sure you are using a firewall (a hardware firewall is recommended because it is harder to crack), anti-virus software, and any of the other programs readily available that will protect your files from being read by outside entities. For even better security, buy a program to erase spyware and rootkits. Any computer use should be with a hard-to-guess password. A combination of letters and numbers works best; your phone number or any other easily-guessed combination is not a good idea. Never use a word found in the dictionary.

Do not reply to suspicious e-mails. If you have never talked to someone about refinancing your home, why would you respond to an e-mail beginning "after talking to you about refinancing, we just need a few more details . . ."? Remember, neither your bank nor the government will e-mail you, so don't reply to an e-mail purporting to come from them.

Out and about

Never carry your social security card with you. If you must have checks while you are out, carry one or two, not the entire checkbook. If you have a health card with your social security number on it, carry a photocopy with the SSN blocked out.

When shopping with a credit card, especially at a busy time of year, make sure your card is returned to you. Remember, you often hand your card to a complete stranger. This is particularly true in restaurants where the server disappears with your card. It is possible to buy a "skimmer" that reads your card as it is swiped and the server can download the information into his or her own computer.

If you are at an ATM, shield your PIN with your hand as you enter it.

Be watchful who is around you. If you are at an ATM, shield your PIN with your hand as you enter it. Don't stand in a line with an ATM or credit card in full view &Mdash; anyone with a camera phone can photograph it. Many ATMs now have cameras to deter criminals. Do not let the camera record your PIN number. Be wary of ATMs not connected to a bank; some of them have reportedly been used to record account number and PIN number of the intended victim.

If you must give information orally, be careful as to who might be eavesdropping nearby.

If you have become a victim of identity theft

Notify your credit card issuers immediately and close the accounts. Contact your banker to see if closing your account is advisable.

If your social security number has been stolen, call the consumer reporting agencies to place a fraud alert on your credit reports. That means that no one can open new accounts in your name. (In theory, of course. Unfortunately not every merchant is careful about extending credit.) Call the Social Security Administration, and, if your drivers license has been stolen, call the state DMV and follow their procedures for getting a replacement. Ask the agency to flag your file so no one else can obtain an identification document.

If your information has been misused, file a police report and file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC's Web site also offers useful information for victims of identity theft.

© Entire contents copyright 2008 by Claims Magazine, a publication of The National Underwriter Company. All rights reserved.

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