Identity Protection Tips

Every day, you share personal information about yourself with others. It’s so routine that you may not even realize you’re doing it. You may write a check at the grocery store, charge tickets to a ball game, rent a car, mail your tax returns, buy a gift online, call home on your cell phone, schedule a doctor’s appointment or apply for a credit card. Each transaction requires you to share personal information: your bank and credit card account numbers; your income; your Social Security number (SSN); or your name, address and phone numbers.

It’s important to find out what happens to the personal information you and your children provide to companies, marketers and government agencies. These organizations may use your information simply to process your order; to tell you about products, services, or promotions; or to share with others.

Identity Theft: Fastest-Growing White-Collar Crime in U.S.

And then there are unscrupulous individuals, like identity thieves, who want your information to commit fraud. Identity theft is the fastest growing white-collar crime in America. It occurs when someone steals your personal identifying information, like your SSN, birth date or mother’s maiden name, to open new charge accounts, order merchandise or borrow money. Consumers targeted by identity thieves usually don’t know they’ve been victimized. But when the fraudsters fail to pay the bills or repay the loans, collection agencies begin pursuing the consumers to cover debts they didn’t even know they had.

Are You A Victim Of Identity Theft?

What happens when your identity is stolen? Protect yourself by using online tools such as spyware, anti-virus software and change your password frequently.

Here are tips from the Federal Trade Commission (the FTC) for managing and protecting your personal information.

Before you review any personal information, find out how it will be used and whether it will be shared by others.

Read the privacy policy on any website directed at children. Websites directed at children or that knowingly collect information from kids under the age of 13 must post a notice of their information practices.

Put passwords on your credit card, bank and phone accounts. Avoid using easily available information like your mother’s maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN or your phone number, or obvious choices like a series of consecutive numbers or your hometown football team.

Minimize the identification information and the number of cards you carry to what you’ll actually need. Don’t put all your identifying information in one holder in your purse, briefcase or backpack.

When you discard receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, bank checks and statements, expired charge cards, credit offers you get in the mail and mailing labels from magazines, tear or shred them. That will help thwart any identity thief who may pick through your trash or recycling bins to capture your personal information.

Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies every year. Make sure it’s accurate and includes only those activities you’ve authorized.

Use a secure browser when shopping online to guard the security of your transactions. When submitting your purchase information, look for the “lock” icon on the browser’s status bar to be sure your information is secure during transmission.

Watch Out for Impersonators

Impostors are everywhere. Whether it’s by telephone or online, they can give an authentic feel for representing themselves as your bank or credit-card company. It’s all a ruse, designed to lure you in, giving them opportunities to steal your private information.

You should never give out personal information over the phone, through the mail or over the internet unless you have initiated the contact and unquestionably know the person or company. It’s an effective way to prevent identity theft.

Here are some identity theft tips that will help you keep vital information safe.

If a company that claims to have an account with you sends an e-mail seeking personal information — known as “phishing’’ — don’t click on the e-mail links. Opening a file from someone you don’t know could expose your computer system to a virus or spyware. It could capture your passwords or other information you type.

A better strategy is to type the company name into your web browser, go to their site and contact them through customer service. Even better than that, call the customer service number listed on your account statement and ask if the company actually sent a request.

There are several impersonator tricks present on social media. Facebook is filled with scams, including thieves masquerading as users on an individual’s friends list. Sometimes, they ask for money and claim they have been mugged in a foreign country. Gullible people immediately wire the money, trying to help their friends. Instead, they are setting themselves up to be victimized.

It seems like the kind of common sense your father and mother would have dispensed, but it’s advantageous to NEVER trust anyone who can’t verify their identity. You can weed out the imposters by asking strategic questions, when the answers can’t be easily found on the user’s profile or located online.

If it seems suspicious, it probably is. Trust your instincts.

It’s important not to “overshare’’ on social networking sites. A savvy identity thief can learn information about your life and perhaps use it to answer the “challenge’’ questions on your accounts. Never post your full name, Social Security number, address, phone number or account numbers in publicly accessible sites.

Don’t Use Public Wi-Fi for Private Information

In this era of portable workplaces, it’s sometimes tempting to set up your “office’’ in the local coffee shop. That’s fine. But be cognizant of potential dangers when relying on a public Wi-Fi connection.

Your data could be intercepted by outsiders. When working at a cafe, airport, library or hotel, don’t conduct bank transactions, make online purchases, enter your Social Security number or send other sensitive information. There could be security compromises.

Cyber criminals are known to set up Wi-Fi hotspots, sometimes known as “evil twins’’ or “rogue hotspots,’’ which are used to steal information from users.

Obviously, you want to avoid sending passwords or account log-in credentials over a public or unsecured Wi-Fi network. That’s like broadcasting all of your personal information to everyone within the radius of your wireless signal.

For small business owners, individuals or families, it’s a good practice to secure your wireless network with a password. That way, unauthorized individuals can’t hijack your wireless network. It might seem innocent enough if someone is attempting to secure free Wi-Fi access, but private information could be inadvertently shared without your permission. You don’t want that.

Mail Theft Protection

Some vital personal information could pass through your mailbox each day. It’s important to recognize that and make sure that identity thieves don’t use your mail to find information.

Promptly remove mail that arrives in the mailbox. If you won’t be home for several days, contact the post office and request a vacation hold on your mail. When you order new checks, don’t have them mailed to your home (unless you have a secure mailbox with a lock).

Also consider opting out of the many pre-screened offers of credit and insurance that arrive in the mail. Call 1-888-567-8688 or go to www.OptOutPreScreen.com.

Similarly, it’s a good practice to purchase a shredder so you can properly dispense of receipts, credit offers, credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks, bank statements, expired charge cards and other documents that could provide opening for identity thieves.

Old Technology Disposal

When your old computers and mobile devices are no longer usable, be careful when dispensing of them.

You can protect your personal information by making the computer hard drives unreadable. After backing up the data and transferring the files, you can “sanitize’’ the computer by magnetically cleaning the disk or using software to wipe the disk clean.

Security experts agree that you should wipe your mobile devices clean and restore them to factory settings if you’re thinking about giving them away (particularly to someone you don’t know). It’s like gift-wrapping all your personal data for the recipient of your old smartphone or tablet.

For mobile devices, you should check your owner’s manual, the service provider’s website or the device manufacturer’s website for information on how to delete information permanently. Remember to remove the memory or subscriber identity module (SIM) card from the mobile device. You want to remove the phone book, list of calls made and received, voicemails, messages sent and received, folder organizers, web search history and photos.

It’s a great idea to back up data into a secure cloud storage service. But cloud backups (and any data backups) add a layer of complication. You must delete files from the backup services in addition to your local devices. When deleting from your computer or mobile device, it’s easy to forget the information remains stored in your cloud account.