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We're all aware by now that identity theft is an increasing problem. Someone who obtains your Social Security number, driver's license number or other identifying information can make commitments on your behalf, including taking out loans. What is worse,
they might pose as you if they are arrested, and you may suddenly find one day that you're taken to jail for failure to show up in Criminal Court. It would be straightened out eventually, but in the meantime your experience would not be pleasant, and you might incur considerable expense.
A recent Ann Landers syndicated newspaper column contained excellent advice for minimizing your risk of identity theft. We pass on that advice below, with a bit more information of our own:
Destroy papers you don't need, including credit-card and ATM receipts, checks, deposit slips, health benefit statements, bank and credit card statements, paycheck stubs, tax records, and "pre-approved" credit card offers. Putting them in the garbage does not destroy them: identity thieves often get their information from their victims' trash. Buy a shredder, and use it liberally.
Do not give out your Social Security number unless it is absolutely necessary. Challenge anyone who claims to need it. Do not have it printed on your checks. If your state's motor vehicle bureau puts Social Security numbers on drivers' licenses, lobby your elected representatives to have that policy changed.
Review your credit reports yearly. In New Jersey, you are entitled to one free report per year from each of the three major agencies, Trans Union (800-888-4213), Experian (888-EXPERIAN), and Equifax (800-685-1111). Cancel credit accounts you no longer use.
Have your name removed from pre-approved offers of credit by calling 888-5-OPTOUT. Don't carry around personal documents such as your birth certificate: Lost and stolen wallets are a common source of information for identity thieves.
If practical, lock your mailbox: Mail theft is a popular method for stealing identities.
Never give any personal information over the phone unless it is needed legitimately and you have initiated the phone call.
Beware particularly of scam artists who claim that you've won a prize but that they must "verify" your credit card or Social Security information.
Warn your children about giving out personal information, either over the telephone or on the Internet.
If you use the Internet:
§ Install a "firewall" program in your PC, because crackers (the malicious segment of the hacking community) could otherwise read any file in your machine, without your knowledge.
§ Before making any purchases over the Internet, make sure that your browser program supports (at least) 128-bit encryption. Before transmitting sensitive information (such as your credit card number) online, verify that your browser has gone into "Secure" mode.
Add passwords to bank, credit card, utility, brokerage, and any other financial accounts that offer access by telephone or Internet. Do not use passwords that might be easy for someone else to guess, such as family birth dates, nicknames, or other obvious information. Do not use your Social Security number as a password.
Check your credit card bill each month, for items that you believe you did not buy. Report discrepancies immediately to the credit card company. If you do not report fraudulent or otherwise erroneous items promptly, you may be liable for the charges.
If you begin receiving overdue notices for loans you didn't make, or you have any other reason to suspect that you're the victim of identity theft, contact the police; it's also a good idea to contact the Federal Trade Commission's identity theft staff (877-IDTHEFT).
Our thanks to Anton Oswald for bringing the Landers column to our attention.
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