Identity theft ravages the financial world about like a force-five tornado. With just the four digits of your social security number, a sophisticated “digital impersonator” not only has power to take all your money but also to open credit accounts and secure mortgages totalling potentially a million dollars or more.
Naturally, the more assets you have and the better your credit scores, the more damage a skilled identity thief can do. Therefore, although you do not want incipient paranoia to drive you into the company of identity-protection scammers, you do want to safeguard your accounts against intruders and thieves of all descriptions.
First, follow your common sense. Shred everyday documents that reveal your financial information, keep sensitive documents out of your trash, and digitize your most important financial information, protecting it with impenetrable passwords. Then, develop healthy habits that will keep your personal information safe wherever you go and whatever you do:
Empty your purse and wallet
Make cash the official currency of all your commerce. The more you use credit and debit cards, the more you make them vulnerable; you obviously increase the risk of losing them, but you also put them at-risk of password theft or “skimming”, the use of electronic devices to capture the numbers on their code strips.
On an ordinary day, you need only your driver’s license, your health insurance identification your roadside assistance card, and the one credit card you use for emergencies – the one with the best, most efficient theft and fraud protection. Carry enough cash to cover your transactions and provide for an emergency stop at a coffee shop! You’re safe and good to go.
Refuse to do business over the phone
Under no circumstances should you ever transact business over the phone, because you have absolutely no way of authenticating the person on the other end really is who he or she claims.
Automated transactions give you a few more protections than voice transactions, but they still come with risk that a determined identity thief may steal the numbers you send and therefore gain control of your accounts.
Especially refuse to share the last-four digits of your social security and charge account numbers with telephone service representatives. Exercise similar caution about internet transactions, double-checking to make sure your easy-access, user-friendly bill-paying and shopping sites have high-quality encryption and other hack protections.
Create and re-create strong passwords
If you watch crime dramas and mysteries, you know that every sleuth, whether good guy or bad guy, easily guesses the most common passwords – your birthday, your children’s and pets’ names and your address.
Sophisticated computer spies have compiled lists of the top twenty most frequently used password formulae, all of which are so painfully obvious even the “Home Alone” villains could guess them. Use your own criminal mind to develop passwords only you could know. Then, change those insidious, super-sneaky passwords about once each month.
Keep your distance
When you must use the ATM, or when you use your debit card at the gas station and in other public locations, make sure people are not peering over your shoulder, and shield the keypad with your free hand while you enter the magic digits.
Whatever precautions you take in semi-public situations, take them to an exponent of ten when you use a credit or debit card at a major retailer, because you are extremely exposed as you use the elevated keypad at the check-out stand.
Check every “mistake”
Good financial management requires you reconcile your account statements every month. Personal safety demands you check and reconcile your accounts at least every week. Use your banks’ and creditors’ websites to review deposits and purchases, making sure your own records match theirs. Whenever you see a discrepancy, call the customer service line immediately, engaging the representative until you feel satisfied they have corrected the error or you have taken proper steps to protect your account and assets.
“I used to take pride in being a trusting person,” says one identity theft victim, “No more! Now, I take pride in how safety-conscious I have become.” Stressing the emotional and practical consequences of identity theft, “You cannot imagine how vulnerable and violated you feel when an invisible thief steals everything you have worked to save. Then, you cannot imagine how much work it takes to reconstruct your genuine financial self.” Feeling a little bit safer and more secure because she has survived the ravages of identity theft, the victim says, “Now, a thief will find it easier to break into Fort Knox than into my accounts.”