I keep hearing horror stories about identity theft. Since I've started my own small home-based business, I fear I'm even more exposed to this kind of problem than I was before. What can I do to minimize this risk? Thanks for any suggestions you can give me.
Thank you for bringing up this important topic. Identity theft is rapidly becoming an all too prevalent form of 21st-century terrorism, and we can certainly benefit from periodic reminders on how to combat it.
Almost every day you and I are invited to volunteer private information about ourselves or our businesses. The first step toward taking control of our identity is to avoid giving away information, consciously or unconsciously. Let me give you a laundry list of some ways to minimize ID theft.
Credit card offerings. Be very careful how you dispose of unsolicited mail offering you "pre-approved" credit cards. These offers arrive in my mailbox weekly, and I take great care to shred them before I file them in the trash. These innocent looking pieces of mail are very dangerous to your ID's health.
You can minimize the number of these coming your way by sending a written request to each of the three national credit bureaus demanding to be removed from their marketing lists. They sell these lists to anyone and everyone, and you definitely do not want to participate in this profit center. The way to "opt out" of these pre-approved credit offers is to call 1-888-5OPTOUT.
Credit reporting agencies. While you're at it, ask each of the three credit bureaus--Equifax 1-800-685-1111, TransUnion 1-800-888-4213, and Experian (888) 397-3742--to send you a copy of your current credit report. The most this can cost you is a few bucks each. Keep these in a file and periodically have them updated. Remember, you're entitled to get one free report every year..
Marketing mailing lists. And as long as we're getting ourselves off lists, let's not forget to include the Direct Marketing Association, that wonderful group that will help get your information off the lists of the folks who stuff your mailbox with junk and call you at dinnertime to sell you things you don't need or want. Go to this site and submit all your phone numbers to further insure you'll not receive any more telemarketing calls. Fill in this form in the ID Theft category and you'll soon receive a thank you note from your mail carrier for lightening the mailbag load on his or her lumbago.
Internet security. Be ever aware of the fact that the Internet is not secure unless you see a little closed padlock icon somewhere on your computer screen indicating that the area you are using is encrypted for security.
Cellular telephones. Your beloved antique analog cell phone was a security disaster. Digital phones are marginally better. Unless you and the recipient of your call speak in tongues, don't reveal anything over a cell phone that you wouldn't be willing to have printed on the front page of The New York Times.
Record retention and destruction. Foil those dumpster divers! Buy a shredder. Keep items with personal information in a safe place and shred them when you don't need them anymore. Make sure charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, bank checks and statements, old expired charge cards, and those aforementioned credit offers you get in the mail are disposed of appropriately. And don't forget those old floppy disks.
Social Security numbers. Give out your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary. Go to this site for some info on what to do if you believe your SSN is being used by others to obtain credit, open bank accounts or apply for a driver's license. This is a serious and dangerous fraud, and if it happens to you, you're pretty much on your own to work out of the problems it can cause you. There is no end to the types frauds crooks can perpetrate using your Social Security number.
Lost or stolen information. To minimize problems that can (and probably will) arise if you lose your wallet, the FDIC offers this checklist for you to prepare in advance and keep in a safe place separate and apart from your wallet. Use it!
Carry as few credit cards and other pieces of personal information as possible, and if your I.D. or credit cards are lost or stolen, notify the creditors by phone immediately, and call the credit bureaus to ask them to flag your accounts and add a "victim's statement" and "fraud alert" to your file. Call your utilities, including your phone company. Tell them that someone may try to get new service using your identification. Report your missing driver's license to the department of motor vehicles. Get a new number that's not your Social Security number.
Other fraudulent schemes. The Federal Trade Commission site has some examples of many more classic frauds and suggestions for how to combat them--all for your reading enjoyment. (You may want to take a couple of aspirin before you wade through this site.)
ID theft report. The FTC recently unveiled a new form that can be used to help identity theft victims provide information to banks, credit reporting agencies, and other parties. The FTC said that unlike in the past, when victims had to repeat the same paperwork over and over again for various fraudulent accounts in the victim's name, such as bank and credit card accounts, this new form will cover numerous accounts.
The form, called an ID Theft Affidavit, was created with the cooperation of a number of financial groups, and is available at the FTC's website. If you feel an identity fraud has been perpetrated against you, be a good citizen and report it so others may be spared the same experience. Or if you don't want to report it online, just call 1-877-FTC-HELP.
We've covered but a few of the many security risks to your identity in this short column. Newer ones such as phishing are being contrived every day. But hopefully, these tips will raise your awareness of this pervasive problem so you'll more readily recognize potential perils and be able to take steps to avoid becoming another victim of identity thieves.