Identity theft is big business. In fact, each year, billions of dollars — that’s billions, with a “b” — is lost to identity theft, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This cumulative figure may not mean that much to you, but if you are victimized for a few hundred dollars, it will be an upsetting and expensive experience. That’s why you’ll want to defend yourself against identity theft - and the best time to take action is before you are victimized.
What can you do to protect yourself? Here are a few suggestions:
• Secure your Social Security number. Identity thieves eagerly seek Social Security numbers, so don’t give out yours to anyone who asks for it. In fact, as a general rule, be reluctant to give it out to anyone at all. Always ask whomever you’re dealing with if they will accept another form of identification, or, at the very least, if they will take just the last four digits of your number. And never carry your Social Security card with you.
• Shred credit card offers and bank statements. If you’re not going to apply for the credit cards offered to you, shred the offers. Identity thieves have been known to rifle through garbage, fill out credit card offers and take advantage of them. At the same time, shred your bank and brokerage statements — and any other statement containing personal or financial information.
• Study your credit card bills and checking account statements. Question any credit card charge or checking account activity you don’t recognize as your own.
• Don’t give out your credit card number unless you’re initiating a purchase. Most of us do at least some shopping online these days. As long as you’re dealing with a reputable merchant who uses a secure site — i.e., one that has “https” in the Web address — you should be reasonably confident that your credit card information will be protected. Never give out your credit card number to people or businesses who, unsolicited, try to sell you something over the phone or Internet.
• “Opt out” of credit card offers and other mailings. You can eliminate many of those “pre-approved” credit card offers by calling 1-888-5OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688) and following the prompts. You can also greatly reduce the amount of advertising, catalogues and other mailings you receive by going on the Direct Marketing Association’s Web site (www.dmachoice.org) and following the “Remove My Name From Those Lists” link.
Even after taking these steps, you could still run into identity theft. That’s why you need to be alert for certain signs, such as the arrival of unexpected credit cards or account statements, denials of credit for no apparent reason, or calls or letters regarding purchases you didn’t make. If any of these things happen to you, you may want to place a “fraud alert” on your credit reports and review them carefully. To place a fraud alert, you just need to contact one of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies: Equifax - 1-800-525-6285; Experian - 1-888-397-3742; or TransUnion - 1-800-680-7289.
It’s unfortunate that identity theft is part of our modern world. But by taking the proper precautions, and by staying alert, you can help yourself avoid becoming a statistic.
Jeff Hupman is a financial advisor with Edward Jones in Rincon. You can reach him at 826-2694.