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Consumer Tips

Be Safe Online

HONESTe Online Consumer
Identity Tips

Anyone who has a Social Security number, bank account, credit card, mortgage, medical insurance, and any number of related identifiers is a target for identity thieves. Even small children have had their identities stolen and lives disrupted. You are even more of a target if your credit is good.

Why does identity theft happen?

Identities are stolen for a variety of reasons. Most frequently, it's for financial gain. The thieves want to steal you money – from bank accounts, brokerage accounts, credit card accounts, and anywhere they can get it.

Using your credit card is one of the safest forms of payment. If there are billing disputes, the cardholder has some recourse through the credit card company. The company usually sets limits for personal liability if the card is stolen or used fraudulently.

Keep your private information locked away and out of reach of visitors to your home. It's easy for someone to find things they shouldn't see if papers are lying about. Don't give someone the opportunity or temptation to take your information. Confidence tricksters are everywhere.

This is particularly true if you have outsiders coming to your home or office. Home-helpers, workmen, and roommates may have free rein around the place. You don't want them finding anything that should be out of sight and locked up, especially if it is sensitive information.

Here's our list of what you should do to protect your identity.

Check your credit report

Check your credit report twice a year for any financial irregularities. Notice and report anything that looks peculiar. Your credit report contains information on where you work and live, any credit accounts that have been opened in your name, how you pay your bills, and whether you've been sued, arrested or filed for bankruptcy.

Make sure it's accurate and includes only those activities authorized by you. One of the most common ways identity thefts is discovered is when you are applying to purchase a car, home, or similar items, and your credit report is checked.

Check your background

Do a background check on yourself. You'll find out what others are seeing. Make certain all of the information is accurate, and correct anything that isn't.

Mother's maiden name

Using the mother's maiden name seems to be the favorite password among financial institutions. Don't use it. Instead, insist on another code word. Your mother's name is in the public domain and appears on your birth certificate.

Social Security number

Never causally give out you Social Security number, especially over the phone to a caller. If there is a legitimate reason for them to have this or other personal information, call them back to provide it. All a criminal needs is your Social Security number, name, and address to get credit cards, bank loans, and create a disaster for you to repair.

Employers will need your Social Security number for tax purposes, and landlords will need it to run a credit check. However, others may ask for it without having a specific need. Before providing the information, find out why it is needed, how it will be used, and what will happen if it isn't given.

If your Social Security number is used on a driver's license or for medical insurance, find out if another number can be substituted.

Use ATMs carefully

Never make your card visible to others, and cover the keyboard while you punch in your code. Check to make certain that there are no unusual devices on the machine that can copy the information from your card.

Monitor financial statements

Always carefully examine your financial records for any irregularities. Report anything that looks suspicious. Be aware of when your statements are sent out, and report any discrepancy. They may be delayed in the post office, or re-directed to another location.

Protect credit card numbers

Don't keep credit card numbers on your computer. That's an invitation for hackers. Instead, make a list of all your credit cards, the account numbers, and related telephone numbers. Keep it locked away in a safe place.

When you're using your card for payment, don't flash the card or make the face visible. Someone next to you with a camera phone can capture all your credit card information without being obvious and without making a sound.

Keep an eye on your card if it is handed to a salesperson for payment. Your card can be "skimmed" in seconds using a hidden tool. A thief can quickly gain access to your credit card information if you aren't vigilant.

Used locked mailboxes

An unlocked mailbox is an invitation to thieves, especially if you receive checks. It's easy for criminals to acid wash checks and reuse them. If you are receiving new checks from your bank, have them sent to a nearby branch rather than a place where they are not secure.

Mail won't be stolen out of a box that's locked. Deposit your mail in a collection post box or at the post office. Contact the U.S. Postal Service at 1-800-275-8777 to request a vacation hold if you are going to be away and cannot collect your mail.

Protect sensitive information

Any written sensitive information needs to be locked away. Never leave it in view of others. Destroy your copies of credit card charges after your statement arrives.

If you are asked to provide personal information, ask why it is needed and how it will be used. Never give out information unless you've initiated the contact and confirm whom you are dealing with.

This includes all contacts through the mail, phone, and Internet. Find out if there is any alternative information you can provide.

Keep only basic information in your wallet

Carry only the basics in your wallet: your driver's license, one ATM card, and one credit card. Keep a separate list of contact and account numbers in a safe place. This is the information you'll need should your cards be stolen.

Your wallet or handbag contains more than just cash. Depending upon what you carry, you could be providing the key to a treasure chest for the thief. It's not necessary to carry your Social Security card around with you. If your medical insurance or any other card uses your Social Security number, ask to have it changed, or block out all but the last four numbers. Keep credit cards to a minimum – ideally the one you use most frequently, and note the details for your credit cards in case they are taken.

While at work, keep your wallet in a secure place

Some companies, such as Discover Card Services and American Express, will make these calls for you for a fee. Any time you get a new card, you'll need to update the registry.

Secure your information at work

Find out how your personal information is handled and stored, who has access to it, and what the procedures are for information disposal.

Shred information before disposing

When putting out your trash, it's a good idea to shred anything containing your personal information. This includes credit card receipts, financial documents, envelopes, pre-approved credit card offers that are unsolicited convenience checks, and papers with your name, address, telephone number, birthday, and especially Social Security numbers.

Shred or tear insurance forms, checks and bank statements, receipts from credit cards, credit applications, expired charge cards, credit offers, medical statements, and similar documents.

Credit card company resources

Check to see whether your credit card company has devised any methods to keep your information safeguarded. Some credit card companies have a method of generating a new credit card number each time it is used.

This is very practical for a number of reasons. The retailer can only gain access to a specified amount of money for a particular period of time, and not your entire account. No indication of the true account number is provided. You can limit the merchant's reach on your money, as they cannot continue to go into your account and make deductions.

Beware of "phishing"

One of the newer scams is phishing. Pretending to be a legitimate business representative, the thief may send an e-mail that appears to be authentic – but isn't – asking for verification of financial and/or personal information. Along with the request comes a threat with some penalty. The victim is then sent to a phony web site designed to look like one from a company that they recognize and are familiar with, where the information is collected.

Ask questions

When asked to supply information, always find out why it is needed and how it will be used. Never give out information to a telephone solicitor or a casual caller. Many who ask for information don't actually need it but may want it for marketing purposes. Determine if there is alternative, non-sensitive information that could be substituted, and always know who you are speaking to.

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