The easiest and probably most lucrative of all the scams being used today involves identity theft. Thieves only have to find out your key ID numbers to set in motion events that will systematically and illegally transfer money from your pocket to theirs. If they can seize your Social Security number, your Medicare or health-care number or other unique personal information, they can redeem them, using your name and number, for untold riches. And you may not find it out for weeks, months or even years.
Armed with your information, the thief could fraudulently buy goods, withdraw money from accounts, file taxes or get medical services. With your medical information, thieves could not only get medical attention at your expense, they could issue fraudulent billing to be reimbursed from your policy.
There is no age limit to fraud victims. Child ID numbers could be used and the thefts go undetected for years. Seniors are particularly tempting targets because they tend to be trusting.
Thieves have also been known to steal information to create phony accounts online. With stolen credit-card numbers, they can buy or withdraw money from accounts before the victim, the merchant or the financial institution is aware that it’s gone. They could even open an account in your name. Fortunately, credit-card companies are now more alert than ever to unusual kinds of purchases by each card holder, but, most typically, many small purchases, rather than a few big ones, could be done rather quickly without being caught by fraud departments.
So, given the sophistication of today’s thieves and scammers, how can you keep your identity from them, keep your money and keep your peace of mind? Here are some ways to make things difficult, if not downright impossible, for them:
- Be discreet about what kind of information — and how much — you share on social networks, such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Longtime social-networking users have been found to be almost twice as likely as newcomers to be vulnerable to ID theft. For some reason, they drop their guard on networking sites where thieves are patrolling on the lookout. Put privacy settings at their highest levels and do not share potentially important personal information, such as birth date or answers to frequent security questions — mother’s maiden name, for example.
- Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet or write your number on checks. Keep the number to yourself except when disclosure is absolutely necessary. That includes unsolicited requests for information by phone, mail or online.
- When conducting ATM transactions, be aware of anyone who may be looking over your shoulder for passwords or numbers.
- Collect mail promptly. Don’t let it sit in your mailbox any longer than it has to. If you go on vacation, either stop delivery while you’re gone or have someone trusted pick it up daily for you.
- Develop a system or a sense for keeping track of billing cycles. If your credit-card bill, for example, is late, contact the company to make sure someone hasn’t intercepted your bill and made any transactions in your account.
- Maintain anti-virus and anti-malware (viruses and harmful programs) software to forestall the theft of information. Consumers should always decline when asked to save the password while logging on to a financial website.
- Review receipts and match them with account statements. Unauthorized transactions should be reported to the company immediately.
- Shred unneeded statements, receipts, expired cards or any other documents that could reveal dangerous information.
- Create intricate passwords for online transactions. Computers in the hands of thieves can zip through volumes of possible passwords in moments. Don’t make it easy for them. Alternating uppercase and lowercase letters, interspersing numbers randomly and using special keystrokes are advisable. Multiple passwords are also recommended to limit damage beyond one account.
- Be alert to “phishing” scams — that is, where scammers get victims to click onto virus-laden links or attachments thanks to personal information planted in an email, for example. The information could have been collected from social-networking sites, for instance. A common scam is where the thieves claim to be from the government, or the police, and you’re told a relative is in trouble and needs money for bail. Check with authorities on any such lines being thrown your way.
- Report any suspected information theft to police, pertinent government agencies, financial institutions, credit-reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion), and the state attorney general’s office. And consider purchasing insurance against identity theft, which, according to the Federal Trade Commission, has been the No.1 consumer complaint for 14 straight years. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners says the typical cost of identity theft insurance ranges from $25 to $60 per year.
Identity theft is one of the bad consequences of the world of electronic networking. When new openings appear, there is always a dishonest person looking to exploit it for fast, easy, robust gain. Follow these guidelines, though, and your security will be much harder to compromise.