Be A Hard Target

With hundreds of millions of people in this country, stealing an identity doesn't take much effort. But some people are easier targets than others. Be sure you fall in the `others' category and make yourself as private and anonymous as possible. It's unlikely anyone will set out to make you a victim. It's more likely you will set yourself up for a `crime of opportunity' by treating your personal information carelessly.

My banking experience, the training I received from the FBI, my 5 years at Dun and Bradstreet, and during my work with a licensed private detective agency, I became well versed on how scams are created and how to prevent them. A few simple steps can help you keep a low profile and stay `out of the crosshairs' of an identity thief.

The most important numbers you possess are your Social Security Number and your birth date.

Never give out your SSN to anyone... unless it is on a `need to know' basis. No credible source will ask you for your SSN, so if someone does ask, be wary!

Check your credit report once a year. Delete old and erroneous information before it becomes a problem. Delete or destroy old credit cards. You do not need more than 3 cards. Each credit card is a back door to you and your credit. Get credit cards with your picture on them (if possible) and always sign your cards.

Never let your credit card out of your sight. If that means paying cash at a restaurant, so be it. Minimum wage people can be paid by scam artists to duplicate a credit card charge.

Never leave your car with a valet or auto mechanic without securing your insurance certificate and state vehicle registration. The valet or mechanic can steal this information or copy it. Your address, insurance carrier and other valuable details are on these documents. If you drive an expensive car, it implies a good income. The DMV is as porous as a sieve, and insurance firms can be penetrated with a phone call.

Your mail delivery at your place of business or home is a huge door that can be opened by a crook. This type of theft is particularly prevalent at the beginning of the month. If your mail is delivered to a non-secure, unlocked box, a quick grab will get all of your incoming correspondence. Bank statements, credit card bills, pre-approved credit applications, checks, pre-approved credit card checks, ID information and portfolio details are all sitting in an unlocked, completely unsecured box in front of your home.

Is your mail box secure? If not, then set up a secure mail drop at the post office or with a private mail company such as Mail Boxes, Etc. or Postal Annex. Your mail is available 24 hours a day, secure and under lock and key. Your personal address is not known if you have mail delivered to a non-residential or non-business address.

Be wary of dropping your outgoing mail in the same personal home mail box. You may have a lock on the incoming mail, but the outgoing mail is even less secure. You just paid the bills. All your checks and payment coupons are there for the picking. There are thieves who wait for month-end bills in these boxes. They fence them or hack into your personal information on a computer to change check amounts, alter your credit card routing and even re-direct your mail with a change of address slip.

This is true for both business and personal mail.

The US Postal Service is not secure either. Mail theft from vans and large mail boxes is a littleknown, but common problem. Nothing short of using armored vehicles could stop this predation. Use a mail drop. If your mail is delivered to your front counter, anyone, including an employee or a customer, could snatch it up and you would be none the wiser. Mail pickups from your home or business are equally susceptible to theft. Take the time to hand off the mail and pick up from a secure site. Most neighborhood shopping centers have this sort of business location. You probably have one within 5 minutes of your home or place of business.

If this is too much trouble, imagine what your life would be like if your credit identity was cloned. There are a few crimes which can cost you so much yet seem so innocuous - but a $100,000 credit debt you didn't create is a nightmare. Once you've been cloned you may not be able to get credit under any circumstances. And you may only find out that you're a victim when you do need credit and apply for it. It can take up to a year to resolve the problem. Once you do clear it up, it may happen all over again. Criminals often come back to their victims for a second shot. For them, it is profitable and poses little risk. A quick $50,000 to $100,000 scam can be executed in a matter of days.

Be careful online ... Seek out secure sites and make sure they follow secure protocols when giving private banking, credit card and personal information. Just because they are a large firm does not mean their files can't be infiltrated. Deal with an alternate merchant if you are not positive of site security. Make sure you remove all data from old computers. Whether you sell, donate or give a computer to them, make sure you delete your files using a `wipe' utility program. Remove the hard drive and destroy it and other sensitive disks and CD's.

Banks and other financial institutions are under considerable pressure to protect their client files and records, whether they are electronic or paper. Make sure your bank treats your files with the same degree of security you would at your home or business.

All service providers, whether banks, brokers, accountants or others with access to your files, have strict security mandates by both federal and state laws. Make sure your service providers are taking all appropriate measures to safeguard your information.

Always shred your mail after review - never throw away unopened junk mail. It may have a pre-approved credit card or application in the envelope. Always shred anything of a confidential nature. Home shredders are inexpensive. For business papers, there are shredding services that will pick up, document and shred your confidential business information.

'Dumpster divers' love finding your junk mail unopened and pitched in the trash. Once again, you have left a door to your business/personal information. Never assume that anything is so completely innocuous as to be of no interest to someone. Even magazine subscriptions show you are interested in something in particular. Tear off magazine labels before discarding. Tear up anything that looks like an `affinity group.'

Never answer polls or calls of any nature that might lead someone to gain information about you. Always hang up on phone solicitors. Get a caller ID blocker and a caller ID switch. Take advantage of the `National Do Not Call Registry.' Outgoing calls should not identify you. Incoming calls should be screened. Get an unlisted number and put it under a different name and give out your number on a `need to know' basis. You will reduce the chances of being traced. You can screen and eliminate many suspicious calls that way.

You can't protect yourself fully, but following these steps will go a long way to making information hard to steal.

Copyright 2004 Francis Financial: All Rights Reserved