WASHINGTON, December 6, 2015 — The exact opposite of holiday spirit is the theft of your identity, and the use of your credit by thieves. Black Friday shopping and Cyber Monday are now behind us, but there is still much shopping to be done, and more shopping means more theft.
Here are some thoughts on minimizing the damage identity thieves can do.
Keeping personal data safe
Using some, or much, or even all of your personal information — name, address, social security number, date of birth, account numbers — thieves can quickly set up fake bank accounts; get credit cards, medical care, a driver’s license, and even file bankrupcty in your name; collect your tax refunds; re-route your paychecks to themselves; and commit crimes and give your name as their own if caught. And more.
When you are shopping at the mall, or at a store, use cash if possible. The methods being used to steal checking account numbers and PINs and those of both credit and debit cards are many. Recovering money that has been fraudulently withdrawn from your checking account or from a debit card is more difficult than contesting a credit card charge.
Remember the massive hack of Target? It affected over 40 million people who shopped in its nearly 2000 stores nationwide. There are many debit and credit card scams that occur at the point of sale.
Look at your all of your statements – checking, debit and credit cards. The inclination during the holidays might be to ignore these statements, as it is a busy time for everyone. These statements, however, may well be the first “clue” that something is awry.
We are increasingly using the Internet to make purchases online. Make sure that any time you provide any confidential information via the Internet, such as your social security number or credit card information, the website’s full URL begins with “https”. That final S stands for secure, meaning there is an extra layer of behind-the-scenes encryption that further secures the data you are providing.
Do not use public Wi-Fi to communicate anything that is secure. Hackers love coffee shops, hotels and airports and can easily hack into your wireless device if you’re using a typically non-secure public Wi-Fi site or location.
Keeping your personal documents safe
Keep sensitive documents in a locked drawer or a safe.
Use secure post office drop boxes or overnight containers when mailing documents that contain sensitive information.
Keeping your computer safe
Use passwords that are difficult to guess and that simple computer hack programs cannot discern. Use upper and lower case, symbols and numbers. Even sophisticated hack programs will have great difficulty if your password is 15 characters or more.
Do not respond to unsolicited or unknown emails asking you for information. It is highly likely these emails are scams or phishing expeditions ultimately looking to steal from you.
Protect your computer. There is a product you should consider that guarantees your PC will never be infected by a virus, a worm, or by malware. PC users can go to www.migrate2.com/appguard to learn about AppGuard ®, and consider purchasing it.
Read also: Anti-Virus Software is not enough
Be careful when your phone rings
Whether using a landline or wireless technology, never give out personal information over the telephone unless you initiated the call and you know the organization on the other end of the line. By way of example, an Internet search for something you might want to buy will provide hundreds of possible vendors. Unless you know of the vendor, calling them and then giving them your information is ill advised. If you want to do business with them, ask them if they have a website where you can complete your transaction, and then, as before, be sure their site’s transactional address begins with “https”.
Beware of identity theft
Identity theft is the most committed crime in the world. Becoming you is easy. Your name can be associated with such things as mortgage debts you did not incur, taxes you owe for money you did not earn, and much more.
You cannot prevent your identity from being stolen. You are “out there” in more places and in more databanks, times 10,000, than you could possibly identify.
Imagine a bowl filled with the candy M&M’s. Each M&M represents a person’s private information. Identity thieves possess 100 Empire State Buildings filled with M&M’s. Likely you are an M&M in some catch now held by some identity thief somewhere. It is only a matter of time until they pick you to eat.
Trying to “fix” your stolen identity can be an enormous task and financially devastating. Stories of financial ruin are easily found — type “Identity Theft Victim” in any search engine and prepare to cry as you read what has happened to your friend, your neighbor or your relative.
Most people first become aware they have become a victim when they get a notice from a creditor or upon using a credit card and learning that it is maxed out.
Once you are aware you have become a victim of identity theft, getting a jump on fixing an identity theft problem becomes vitally important. The sooner you get to a small fire, the more likely you can put it out before it burns down your house.
As already noted, your first step is to monitor all of your statements. Next, monitor your credit. There are three credit bureaus that allow one free credit report per year – Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. You can stagger the reports among them every four months to allow yourself to view your credit report, and in that fashion see if there are any items that are “not you.”
The easiest way to do this is to go to www.annualcreditreport.com. This is the ONLY site for truly free reports. All other sites have some “catch” and will ultimately charge you for their services.
Checking your credit situation at regular intervals is the best way to stay on top of your financial and identity status. Please do not fall prey to companies that promise “credit monitoring” and use the words (or something similar to) “prevention” or “protection” prominently in their advertising or product description. Ultimately, you cannot be fully protected and identity theft cannot be prevented. Paying these companies to do either is burning your money.
If You are a Victim, Act Quickly
- Contact each of the three credit agencies and have them freeze your credit. This prevents the opening of new lines of credit and the viewing of your credit report online. You can lift the freeze at any time using the PIN given to you by each of the agencies.
- Contact all credit card companies with whom you are doing business and cancel all your cards.
- Contact the local police and fill out a report. This is important as a record and may be required by insurance companies.
Speaking of shopping, do something nice for a complete stranger this season. Happy Holidays.
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website.
His book “The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You” can be instantly downloaded, for free, on his website: http://www.samakowlaw.com/book.