Here are four ways to decrease your risk of being a victim of identity theft:
1. Monitor your accounts. Review your bank and credit card statements closely, so if you notice something strange, you can take immediate action. “It will give you an early warning should there be an issue,” says Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder of Identity Theft 911 L.L.C. (www.identitytheft911.com), which focuses on identity theft resolution and providing fraud solutions and consumer education. “If you see a transaction you don’t recall, call the bank and ask them to look into it.”
Check your credit report by going to www.annualcreditreport.com. While you should check your report at least once a year, here’s a tip: You can obtain one free credit check per year from each of the three major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion), so you can keep regular tabs on your accounts by checking a different one every four months. According to Levin, depending on your state of residence, you may have the option of checking your report more than once a year. Contact your state’s Department of Consumer Affairs or Office of the Attorney General for more information.
2. Sign up for fraud alerts. Most financial institutions offer fraud alerts, which help detect and identify fraud quickly. Customers can receive timely notification about important or suspicious activity on their accounts via e-mail alerts or telephone calls. You can also add a victim’s statement to your credit report so that you’re contacted to verify future credit applications. Fraud alerts can be placed directly on your files with Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
3. Don’t give it all away online. “Students need to understand that in a transparent Internet world, they must be aware of the characteristics of their identity,” explains Gary Gordon, executive director of the Center for Applied Identity Management Research, a nonprofit corporation co-hosted by Indiana University and the University of Texas at Austin that identifies key identity management challenges. “Name, birthday, address, Social Security numbers—even where you live, your dog’s name—all of that is important.” If there’s something you feel inclined to share, like your birthday, you can give the day you were born, but not the year, or vice versa. “You don’t have to put much information out there to utilize the full benefits of social networking,” says Gordon.
4. Remember the basics. Avoid carrying your Social Security card. Shred personal and financial documents. Don’t forget to install a firewall and regularly update the anti-virus and anti-spyware software on your computer. Invest in an inexpensive safety box to lock up your financial documents, passport, and Social Security number.
Remember that you might not discover that you’ve been the victim of identity theft until years later, so protect yourself now. The process of clearing your name and restoring your credit can take months and sometimes years depending on the severity of the case.
Fast Facts: What to Do After Your Identity Has Been Stolen
Immediately file a police report. Your local police department can play a key role in the recovery process. Furthermore, credit card companies and financial institutions may require this type of documentation to prove that your identity and/or accounts have in fact been compromised, so be sure to get a hard copy of your police report.
If you are having difficulty getting a company to reimburse you or to take responsibility for their role in the incident, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov) or the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org/us).
Contact the Social Security Administration (www.ssa.gov) and provide proof that your identity has been stolen.
Additional reporting by Siobhan Dixon
This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of Black Enterprise.