Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Top Identity Theft Methods

According to the FTC, over the past 5 years over 27.3 million people have had their identity stolen. That's a scary number, made more concerning by the fact that most people don't even realize their identity has been "borrowed" until after the damage is done. At this very minute, someone could be merrily opening credit card accounts and applying for mortgages under your name. It's important to take steps to actively protect your identity. The first step is to be aware of the various methods thieves have of obtaining your personal information. Some of them are predictable, while others are more surprising. The list below is a great starting point.
  • Getting your credit card information during an in-person transaction: This usually happens at a retail location where you're using your credit card to make a payment. Thieves can see and memorize your credit card info (or just write it down) and then turn around and use it to make their own purchases. They have even been known to resort to taking pictures of your card with a long range camera lens!
  • Stealing your mail: Make sure your mailbox has a sturdy lock, and that you keep a close watch on your mail trends. Haven't gotten any mail for a while? A thief may have submitted a change of address on your behalf to have your billing statements mailed to an address they control. They can then apply for credit card offers that you receive and obtain credit cards in your name.
  • Stolen wallets or purses: If your wallet or purse has been taken or "lost," immediately cancel all the credit cards. This is also a good time to put a credit freeze on your credit records at all 3 credit bureaus and start looking into identity theft protection services.
  • Dumpster diving: You'd be surprised how much personal information people throw in the trash. It's easy for thieves to acquire this information and use it for their own means. Make sure you shred all your documents and take the proper precautions.
  • Eavesdropping on phone conversations: People are usually pretty lax about what they'll say on the phone. With the advent of mobile phones, it's very easy for a thief to overhear you divulging personal information to a friend. Always be aware of what you're saying and who might be around you.
  • Phishing: This is a common email scam where you receive an email from a company of authority, such as your bank, PayPal or eBay. The email will ask you to provide personal information (like a password) by responding to the email or going to a link in the email, or even by calling them. Do not ever respond to these emails! No legitimate company will ever ask you for personal information via email.
  • Computer viruses: Hackers can create viruses that will invade your computer, acquire personal information, and send that information back to the hacker. Always have a current version of internet security software installed on your computer and make sure you keep it up to date.
  • Intercepting data from insecure sites or networks: If you're accessing your bank account or shopping online, make sure the site is encrypted. Look for a "https://" at the front of the URL. This indicates the site utilizes SSL encryption to keep your online transactions safe.
  • Pretexting or Social Engineering: This occurs when a thief uses false pretenses to get your personal information. One popular scheme is to call you, pretending to be your bank, utility company or other institution that might have access to your personal information. They will then ask for you to provide or confirm some piece of personal information. If someone calls you, don't give this information to them. Instead, look up the number of the company (if it's a bank or credit company, usually the number will be on the back of your card), and call them directly.

Some of the schemes mentioned above are fairly easy to protect against, others are more challenging. It's a good idea to stay on top of your credit records, as suspicious changes or updates to your credit history can indicate potential identity theft. The easiest way to do this is by signing up for an identity theft protection These services will usually monitor your credit history and actively stay on top of any leaks or use of your personal information.

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