A consumer’s top 10 tips to prevent identity theft


A consumer’s top 10 tips to prevent identity theft

A consumer’s top 10 tips to prevent identity theft

Identity fraud is one of the fastest growing crimes in the country today, impacting several million people per year. According to a 2010 Identity Fraud Survey report*, about 11 million people were victims of identity fraud during 2009.

Traditional shopping

  1. Review your wallet or purse contents before you go shopping. Common theft is the easiest way for a criminal to steal your identity and commit fraud. Before you go shopping, think about how much information a thief would obtain if your wallet or purse was stolen. Avoid carrying Social Security cards, birth certificates or passports unless absolutely necessary. Don’t carry extra credit cards unless you plan to use them.
  2. Create a list of all your credit card and bank account information and store in a secure place. Be sure to include account numbers, expiration dates and credit limits. Also include the telephone numbers or e-mails or the customer service and fraud departments. If you find your card missing or stolen, refer to this list and immediately notify your credit card provider of the loss. This not only prevents fraudulent charges, but it also notifies your provider if the card is used again.
  3. Protect your Passwords and PINS. When creating passwords and PINs, do not use the last four digits of your Social Security number, mother’s maiden name, your birth date, middle name, pet’s name, consecutive numbers or anything else that could easily be discovered by identity fraud thieves. It’s best to create passwords that combine letters and numbers.

    Ask your financial institutions to add extra security protection to your account. Most will allow you to use an additional code or password (a number or word) when accessing your account. If asked to create a reminder question, do not use one that is easily answered by others. Memorize all your passwords. Don’t record them on anything in your wallet.

  4. Review your credit report now. One of the easiest ways to see if a criminal has stolen your identity is to review your credit report. Be sure to report mistakes to the credit bureaus. A federal law gives consumers the right to receive one free copy of their credit report every 12 months from each of the three main credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, TransUnion).

    Order a report today from one bureau and review it, looking for discrepancies. In four months, order another report from a second bureau. In another four months, order a report from the third bureau. Doing this will enable you to see snapshots of your credit throughout the year at no cost.

  5. Never provide confidential information over the phone to an unsolicited caller claiming that they represent a financial institution or creditor. ID criminals often will use your social security number to open up fraudulent accounts or gain access to financial information or assets, especially with increased activity around the holidays. Do not have your Social Security number printed on your checks and do not allow merchants to write your Social Security number on your checks. If a business requests your Social Security number, ask them why they need it. If it is not a valid reason, don’t provide it. If you receive an unsolicited call and are asked to provide information, get the caller’s name, location, telephone number, and reason that they are calling. Call them back at the phone number on your billing statements to verify the caller’s identification.
  6. Never put outgoing checks or bill payments in your home mailbox, as they are easy to steal. While sending checks is a popular and desired holiday gift, it also has its risks, as thieves can steal mail containing checks and gain other personal information from bills and financial statements. Where practical, drop all items containing checks or financial information in a secure postal mailbox or at the post office.

Online shopping & Identity Protection

  1. Log off completely when finished with online transactions. Closing or minimizing your browser or typing a new Web address may not be enough to prevent others from accessing your online information. Instead, click “log off” to terminate your online session. In addition, don’t allow your browser to “remember” your username and password information.
  2. Increase your own computer’s security. Personal firewalls and security software packages (with anti-virus, anti-spam, and spyware detection features) are a must-have for those who plan on shopping online this season. Make sure your computer has the latest security patches, and make sure that you access your online financial accounts only on a secure Web page using encryption.
  3. Avoid e-mailing personal and financial information. Although your computer may be “well protected” with proper firewall, antivirus, Internet security or encryption software, the individual or company receiving your information may not have similar security in place. Always confirm with online retailers that they have proper Internet security in place before responding to any e-mail request.
  4. Delete, without replying to, any suspicious e-mail requests. Hackers and spammers often impersonate retailers to lure personal financial information. If there is any reason to doubt the authenticity of an e-mail message from a company you do business with, don’t click on links or buttons in the message. Instead, type the Internet address of the company into your browser, log on as you usually do, and examine your account information. You may also telephone a company to ask if an e-mail is legitimate.

Guidelines for Keeping Credit in Check

Imagine you are at an auction and an antique lamp you love is about to come on the block. When you viewed the auction items earlier, you placed a value of $100 on the lamp. It is late in the auction, you have planned your bidding carefully, and you have exactly $100 in cash left in your pocket.

Price Equals Value

When the bidding reaches $90, you and one other bidder are still in the game. So, what is the likely outcome? If the bidding goes to $100, you will either get the lamp or drop out of the game. In this case, the amount of cash you have left equals the value you assigned to the lamp and effectively limits the amount you can pay. Assuming you are alone and cannot borrow some money from a friend, what you are willing and able to pay is controlled by how much money you have in your pocket. In this example, we might say the price of the lamp equals its value.

Exp anding Value

Let’s now modify the scenario slightly and see how the outcome might change. Instead of it being late in the auction, this is one of the early items to go on the block, and it will be the first item on which you will bid. You have $500 in your pocket, the total amount you have allotted for the entire auction. The bidding has reached $90. What should you do? What are you likely to do?

Since you originally placed a value of $100 on the lamp, you should be prepared to drop out if a $100 bid does not secure the lamp. However, unlike the first scenario, in which you only had $100 left, you have a full pocket. Depending on how much you want the lamp, it is possible that you would exceed your initial limit and continue bidding, particularly if you thought that a bid slightly over $100 might be successful. What’s the big deal about going over a little? After all, you may not even be successful on some other items of interest.

Although in this case it’s probably not a “big deal,” you have exp anded your definition of value. What was originally a $100 value has been exp anded to, perhaps, a $110 value. Notice how easy it is to lose one’s sense of value and have something that you want become something that you feel you need.

The “Value” of Increased Buying Power

Okay, now let’s change the scene once more. This time, in addition to cash, the auction house will accept payment by credit card. What can happen to your sense of value when your buying power has been increased?

It appears that people may be less quality conscious in their buying behavior, may not negotiate as skillfully, and may pay more when buying by credit card than when making an identical purchase by cash. If the bidding were to surpass $100, it is quite likely that you would be willing to pay far more than your original assessment of what the lamp was worth.

This possibility suggests that “hard money” and “plastic money” carry different meanings. Hard money (i.e., actual dollars in your pocket or checking account) tends to be perceived as finite—when you run out of dollars, you’ve exhausted your buying power until you obtain more dollars. On the other h and, credit cards can exp and your buying power up to the credit limit of the account.

The alluring aspect of being able to buy on credit can become transformed into an exp anded sense of value. In the process, it is easy to lose track of the relationship between price and value, and to pay more than we know an object is worth. It is this changed sense of value that is, perhaps, the most concerning aspect of credit card purchases. We simply lose our sense of what a good deal is all about, and we become less smart about our shopping.

Buying on credit can be a great convenience, and it can make sense when we are temporarily short of cash. However, when buying on credit becomes our st andard way of doing business, it can have some highly undesirable consequences. One way to guard against credit card abuse is to ask two questions when making a credit card purchase. First, would I still purchase the item if I were paying cash? Second, would I pay the same price if paying by cash?

By keeping the focus on value, you can better distinguish between things you would like to get and things you absolutely must have. Making this distinction can help you avoid the major pitfalls of buying on credit—overpaying on individual items and spending beyond your means.

Copyright © 2010 Liberty Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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This article appears courtesy of Karl Susman. Karl Susman is a representative of the New Engl and Life Insurance Company. He focuses on meeting the individual insurance and financial services needs of people on the West Coast. You can reach Karl at the office at (424) 785-4337. New Engl and Life Insurance Company, 501 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02116