WASHINGTON, September 28, 2014 — Identity theft is the most frequently committed crime in the world. Becoming you is easy to do.
Identity thieves can steal your life, your credit and your medical history. Your name can be associated with crimes you did not commit, mortgage debts you did not incur, taxes you owe for money you did not earn, and much more.
Worse, you cannot prevent your identity from being stolen. You are “out there” in more places and in more databanks, times 100, than you could possibly identify.
Imagine a bowl filled with the candy M&Ms. Each M&M represents a person’s private information. Identity thieves possess the equivalent of 100 Empire State Buildings filled with M&Ms. It’s likely you are an M&M in some big catch hauled in and held by some identity thief somewhere in the world. It is only a matter of time until they pick you as the next M&M to eat.
As sick as it gets, identity thieves will also steal the identities of people who have died. When a loved one dies, notify all financial institutions, insurance companies, credit card companies, loan holders and the like and send them official death certificates. Remove the deceased relative’s name from all joint accounts. Finally, contact the credit reporting agencies and request a “deceased alert.” This places a notice on the deceased’s credit report telling companies that the person has died and cannot be issued credit.
Trying to fix or repair your stolen identity can be an enormous task and a financially devastating one as well. Stories of financial ruin are easily found. Just 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. Recommendations about how best to position yourself before you become a victim follow just a bit later in this article.
Most people become aware that they have become victims when they get a warning notice from a creditor; or upon review, observe that their credit card has suddenly been maxed out with what appear to be fraudulent charges.
Getting an immediate jump on fixing an identity theft problem is very important. The sooner you can get to a small fire, the more likely you will be able to put it out before it burns down your house.
Your first step is to simply become proactive and monitor your credit. There are three credit bureaus that allow one free credit report per year: Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. You can periodically obtain your current reports, staggering your requests among the three to obtain one report every four months. This allows you to view your credit reports on an ongoing, regular basis. In so doing, you should readily be able to ascertain if there are any items in the reports that are clearly “not you.”
The best way to accomplish this: Go to Annual Credit Report, the only site known of for truly free reports. All other sites have some catch” and will ultimately charge you for the reports.
Checking your credit is the best way to stay on top of your financial and identity status. Please do not fall prey to companies that promise so-called “credit monitoring” and use the words “prevention” or “protection” or something similar. Ultimately, you cannot really be protected and identity theft cannot really be prevented. Paying these companies for the promise that they can do so is the same as burning your money.
Your next step is to monitor your Social Security information. Go to the Social Security Administration and order your Social Security Benefits and Earnings statement once each year within a few months of your birthday if it does not come automatically within a few months of that date.
To attempt to completely control the dissemination of your private information would require more vigilance, time and effort than is humanly possible. Nonetheless, there are some things you can do to minimize harm. Here they are:
Protecting Personal Information
- Never give out your Social Security number (SSN) unless it’s absolutely necessary.
- Do not carry your Social Security card anywhere. Only keep the essentials in your wallet or purse.
- Get a paper shredder and use it for anything containing personal information.
- Protect PIN numbers – cover the number pad at the ATM machine.
- Don’t write your SSN on your checks.
- Don’t trust anyone over the telephone. Never give any personal information when solicited.
- Don’t keep any sensitive information in your car, such as credit cards, statements, checks.
- Buy a sturdy home safe or get a safety deposit box at the bank for securing important documents.
- Know how many credit cards you have. If you no longer use a card, cancel it. Do not just cut it up.
- Never leave credit card receipts behind even if the receipt doesn’t have the full credit card number on it. Gas stations and restaurants are the two primary places people just leave receipts. Don’t be one of them.
- Don’t sign the back of your credit cards. Write “Check ID” on them.
- Don’t store information on any store’s website. The site might be hacked.
- Opt for a credit card with your photo on it if available.
- Opt out of credit card offers. Go to optoutprescreen.com. A thief can fill in your name and use the card!
- Carry your bag or pocketbook safely. Don’t leave it unattended. Even with you there, if it’s in a shopping cart, it can be easily snatched.
- Never leave your wallet or purse in a the pocket of a jacket or coat that’s hanging on the back of a chair. Again, easily swiped.
- Keep credit card telephone contact numbers on hand. That way, if you notice your card has been stolen, you can cancel it immediately.
- Only make online purchases through trusted websites. Go to the site through a known URL or by searching for it on a search engine.
Computers and the Internet
- As above, only make online purchases through trusted websites. Go to the site through a known URL or by searching for it on a search engine.
- Make passwords at least 15 characters, as many hacking programs only search for passwords up to 14 characters. Make passwords complicated: use upper and lower case, numbers and symbols.
- Change passwords regularly. Use different passwords for different accounts and logins.
- Don’t use public computers if you have to log in. You don’t need the possible problems you may encounter if you forget to log out. Also, you don’t know the computer or what it may be copying.
- Use and regularly update firewall, anti-virus and anti-spyware programs on your computers.
- Be aware of online phishing scams. Sophisticated emails can trick you into thinking they are legitimate. The most common examples are emails allegedly from banks or online services you use. Don’t click links to “update” them. Rather, go to the website directly and log in there
- Other phishing scams: false lottery wins, requests for money to help people who have lost money and the usual plethora of claims and schemes from various Nigerian princes.
- When you get rid of your computer, wipe out all of your information first. Ideally, restore it to the factory settings as explained in the user manual or on-line.
Secure Your Mail and Mailboxes
A study found that the most frequently used non-technological method for identity theft was the rerouting of mail through change of address cards. Defend against this by adopting the following routines:
- Never leave bill payments in your mailbox.
- When you move, contact all credit cards, creditors, and the IRS immediately.
- Use electronic bill delivery when possible. If no mail, no lost mail.
- If you don’t opt for electronic bills, make sure you are getting all your bills. A missing bill is a red flag.
- Consider a P.O. box for your mail.
- Take your mail as soon as your mailman delivers it. Personal information is available in nearly every average mail delivery and can be stolen. That includes bank and investment statements and even drivers license renewal.
- Be aware what time of the month your bills usually arrive. If it is a week late, there is cause for concern.
If You Find You Are a Victim, Act Quickly
- Contact each of the three credit agencies noted above and have them freeze your credit. This prevents the opening of new lines of credit and the viewing of your credit. You can lift the freeze at any time using the PIN given to you by each of the agencies.
- Contact all credit card companies 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.
For optimum security, the best risk agency to work with is Kroll, Inc. If you are a “member” when you become a victim, the cost of salvaging your credit is minimal compared to what it will cost to have other professionals clean up the mess created by your identity being stolen. Kroll will put you back to where you were before the theft occurred.
An excellent protection plan can be obtained through an organization called Legal Shield. Legal Shield works with Kroll and incorporates Kroll’s credit monitoring with a pre-paid legal plan, all for a cost less than what other credit monitoring companies charge. And the differences are significant. With Legal Shield, attorneys trained in identity theft matters are there for you and are included in your plan along with Kroll, whose professionals are the best in the world at uncovering problems and fixing them.
Other so-called prevention companies only offer notification if a problem is detected. This minimal response essentially leaves you on your own to try to solve the problem. Further, in a typical identity theft attack, there is not just one issue to deal with, but many. If your identity has been compromised, chances are there are dozens of places where someone is using your information and putting you in harm’s way. As you probably don’t have the time or the knowledge to fight off the attack yourself, you likely need professionals to resolve all the issues involved.
For more information on serious identity security, go to Legal Shield.
In addition to being an attorney, Paul A. Samakow is a Certified Identity Theft Risk Management Specialist, as certified by the Institute of Consumer Financial Education. He 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 new book “Who Will Pay My Auto Accident Bills?, The Most Comprehensive Nationwide Auto Accident Resolution Book, Ever” can be reviewed on http://www.completeaccidentbook.com and can be ordered there, or obtained directly on Amazon: Click here to order
Mr. Samakow’s “Don’t Text and Drive” campaign, El Textarudo, has become nationally recognized. Please visit the website http://www.textarudo.com and “like” the concept on the Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/textarudo.