Protect Yourself Against Identity Theft
Article by Angie Kibiloski
How many times did you use your credit or debit cards this past holiday season? Did you use them online? How certain are you that your information was protected from theft in the process? Do you know what to do if someone else gets your card numbers? Honestly, I never really considered identity theft, and ways to protect myself from it, until it actually happened to me.
A few months ago, I started seeing charges to my credit card that were most definitely not mine. The total charges, over 2 billing cycles, only added up to a couple of hundred dollars, but it could have been a lot worse. I have since gotten all of the charges reversed and changed my card number, but the process has been frustrating, and taken a lot longer than I expected. This experience has opened my eyes to all the ways my personal information could be at risk, and all the things I can do to prevent it from being compromised again.
We all know the various programs out there that protect our computers from spyware and viruses of all kinds. You might be familiar with AVG (www.avg.com), Norton AntiVirus (www.symantec.com), or the built in protection that comes with your browser, like AOL’s SPAM filter. However, sometimes that is not enough to stop a determined hacker. I do not know how my card number was stolen, whether off of my PC, from a site I use to shop online, or from a spycam hidden near an in-store pay point. Fortunately, whatever the means of theft, there is also a means of protection.
Modern identity thieves are resourceful, and have high-tech gadgets at their disposal, even offline. Some thieves set up hidden cameras near pay points where cards will be swiped. This can include ATMs, gas stations, even near the registers inside stores. When you take your card out to swipe it through the machine, the cameras video your number. To lessen this threat, just try to cover the numbers on the front of your card with your hand whenever possible. There are also devices that can be fitted on the front of ATMs that scan your card as you insert it. Unfortunately, the only thing you can do about this is to be watchful of strange looking card slots, especially if they seem to not match the rest of the machine.
When shopping online, make sure to only shop through sites you trust and that have good built-in security. Try to follow links only through the site itself. If you get an e-mail with a link to an online store, I would suggest going directly to the site to make your purchase, instead of following the e-mailed link. Some SPAM e-mails can look very similar to the Web site e-mails they are trying to impersonate. If you aren’t completely sure about an e-mail, it is better to be safe than sorry. For your convenience and safety, you could simply use the Safe Shopping sites listed on the Computer Times Web site at http://computertimes.com/onlineshopping.htm. Here you will find safe shopping sites categorized by area of interest.
Then there is the information you keep on your hard drive. Hackers cannot only access your information from Web sites you visit, they can pull it from anything you have stored in your offline files. This is where a software package called Identity Finder can come in handy. This product, found at www.identityfinder.com, will search your hard drives and locate any files that contain personal information like your name, address, phone numbers, credit card numbers, passwords, etc. This will keep your system clean of data that a hacker can use to steal your identity. Beyond that, Identity Finder allows you to encrypt data, lock all of your passwords into a secure vault, search for information inside saved Web pages, online forms and cookies, and electronically shred any documents you choose. All this is standard in the Free Edition. You can get even more features with the Home Edition (Retail $24.95), or Professional Edition(Retail $34.95). These prices are for 1 license. You can also purchase licenses for 3, 5, or 7 computers. I have found this software to be user friendly and very effective in finding my personal data in places I would not have thought to look.
Identity theft does not only mean the unlawful use of a credit card. I am thankful, in fact, that the only thing I was a victim of was a handful of fraudulent charges to one of my cards. The perpetrator could have emptied my checking account, opened credit lines or loans in my name, or even committed crimes using my identity if they had gotten hold of my social security number. The possibilities are incredibly frightening.
Even after taking all of these steps to protect yourself, you need to be vigilant. When you get your credit card and bank account statements each month, carefully review all the charges to make sure they are legitimate. Also, you are entitled to one free copy of your credit report each year from each of the 3 major credit report companies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Utilize this privilege and check to make sure you have personally opened all of the credit lines that show up on the report. You can request this at www.annualcreditreport.com. There are other sites who claim to offer a free credit report, but this is the only legitimate site. You will find hidden fees and commitments with the others.
If you do become a victim, there are steps you need to take immediately to stop the criminal who has your information and reverse any damage done to you. The first step is to report the fraud to the institution it was made with, like your credit card company. They will open a fraud case and take their own steps to research the issue. If it was a fraudulent charge to a credit or debit card, you might want to contact the stores whom the charges were made through directly. Sometimes, they will reverse the charges right away, or they will open a case and look into it. Always follow up weekly with both the merchants who are doing research and your card company until the matter is resolved. In addition, you need to file a report with one of the credit companies referenced above. This is easily done online through any of the credit report companies’ Web sites. You can find more information on filing this Fraud Alert at www.annualcreditreport.com. You only need to file a report with one of the three, and that company is required by law to contact the other 2 regarding your claim.
If the problem is more serious, for instance if the amount of money stolen or illegally charged is extremely high, or you think your social security number might have been hacked as well, you need to file an identity theft report with your local police department. This will somewhat safeguard you in case the criminal attempts to use your SSN to commit further fraud or a worse crime in your name. The police might be able to track the fraud back to the perpetrator, but even if they don’t, your report will be on file in case you are a victim again.
Identity theft can be a frightening thing, providing months of worry, stress, and headache to rectify. Fortunately, by using methods such as SPAM and anti-virus software, products such as Identity Finder, and our own common sense and vigilance, we can protect ourselves from most of the danger. I hope that something like what happened to me never happens to you, but if it does, I hope I have given you some ideas of what to do in order to recover and to prevent future cases.