Identity theft is often in the news, but there are a lot of misconceptions swirling around about how to best protect yourself.
While some identity thieves focus on getting your credit cards and maxing them out before you even realize they're missing, an increasing number are using one piece of information about you -- often a credit card number -- to steal your entire identity.
Though many folks worry about keeping their credit card information secure when shopping online, the top methods that identity thieves use to steal personal data are still low-tech, according to Justin Yurek, the president of ID Watchdog, an identity theft-monitoring firm. "Watch your personal documents, be careful to whom you give out your data over the phone, and be careful of mail theft," he says.
Indeed, a February 2009 study by Javelin Strategy & Research found that of the 9.9 million identity-theft cases reported in 2008 -- resulting in a loss of $48 billion -- online theft accounted for only 11% of incidents. Stolen wallets, checkbooks and credit and debit cards made up almost half.
No one is immune to identity theft, but armed with a little knowledge about how identity thieves operate -- and a little common sense -- you can stay one step ahead of them.
1. Thieves don't need your credit card number to steal it. Conversely, they don't need your credit card to steal your identity. Identity thieves are crafty; sometimes all they need is one piece of information about you, and they can easily gain access to the rest. As a result, says Heather Wells, a recovery manager at ID Experts, an identity-protection company, it's crucial to lock up important documents at home. "Secure birth certificates, Social Security cards, passports -- in a safe deposit box or in a safe hidden at home," she says. "And that includes credit cards when not in use."
2. The nonfinancial personal information you reveal online is often enough for a thief. Beware of seemingly innocent personal facts that a thief could use to steal your identity. For example, never list your full birthdate on Facebook or any other social-networking website. And don't list your home address or telephone number on any website you use for personal or business reasons, including job-search sites.
3. Be careful with your snail mail. "Follow your billing cycles closely," says Lucy Duni, a vice president of consumer education at TrueCredit. "If a credit card or other bill hasn't arrived, it may mean that an identity thief has gotten hold of your account and changed your billing address." Al Marcella, a professor at Webster University's School of Business and Technology in St. Louis and an expert on identity theft, suggests that when you order new checks, pick them up at the bank instead of shipping them to your home. "Stolen checks can be altered and cashed by fraudsters," says Duni. And never place outgoing mail in your mailbox or door slot for a carrier to pick up. Anyone can grab it and get your credit card numbers and other financial information. Bring it to the post office yourself.
4. Review bank and credit card statements monthly -- and preferably more often. Watch for charges for less than a dollar or two from unfamiliar companies or individuals. Thieves who are planning to purchase a block of stolen credit card numbers often first test to check that the accounts haven't been canceled by aware customers. They do so by sending a small charge through, sometimes for only a few pennies. If the first charge succeeds, they'll buy the stolen data and make a much larger charge or purchase. They're guessing -- often correctly -- that most cardholders won't notice such a tiny charge. In addition, many of the fraud alerts you can set on your accounts aren't triggered by small dollar amounts. Reviewing your credit report on a regular basis is also a good idea, but usually by the time a fraudulent transaction reaches your credit report, it's too late.
5. If an ATM or store terminal looks funny, don't use it. "Make sure there is no device attached to any ATM card slot you use," says Wells. "As a general rule, the mouth of a card receptacle on an ATM machine should be flush with the machine or have only a very slight lip." If it looks or feels different when you swipe your card, or has an extra piece of plastic sticking out from the card slot, it may be a skimmer, an electronic device placed there by thieves that captures your credit card information when you swipe it. If you notice it after you've already inserted your card, you should alert your bank so it can watch for any fraudulent charges to your account.
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