Keep Your Identity (And Your Bank Account) Safe from Thieves
by Jonathan Moeller
Hidden Identity Theft Risks
No matter how far you stretch a dollar, it won't do you much good if a thief steals your identity and snatches that dollar out of your bank account. Identity theft has become a multi-billion dollar problem, and it's getting worse. A British columnist recently wrote an article downplaying identity theft, and published his bank account number to prove his point. He did indeed make a point, but not quite the one he had intended; a thief took the number and drained out the columnist's bank account.
Needless to say, it's more important than ever to safeguard your personal information. Fortunately, most identity thieves and hackers are not the omniscient villains you might see on TV. Like any other kind of criminal, identity thieves are often criminals of opportunity. Just as there's no foolproof way to burglar-proof your home, there's no surefire way to protect yourself from identity theft, but you can do a lot to cut down the risk with a few simple strategies.
Make sure to thoroughly shred any financial papers you discard. Credit card statements, bank statements, car payments, investment reports, 401(k) papers, receipts, tax forms, and government documents all contain information that could be used in identity theft. College students might go dumpster diving for cheap furniture, but the savvy identity thief knows that he or she might find useful documents that people neglected to shred. As a general rule of thumb, shred any document containing your name, an account number of any kind, or your Social Security number. It's especially important to destroy any credit card offers you might receive. Identity thieves will often use discarded offers to take out a card and rack up huge debts in their victims' names.
Thoroughly check all your bank and credit card statements for unusual activity. Many identity thieves will first draw out small sums in order to test the waters on a particular account. If you monitor your statements, you can often spot abnormal activity and freeze the account before anything worse happens. If your bank or credit card company offers the option of checking your accounts online, you'll want to do so daily. If you do use online banking, be on guard against the Internet's most common form of identity theft, namely phishing, where a thief's website masquerades as a legitimate website in hopes of snaring personal information. Also never check your accounts from a public computer terminal, since you might inadvertently leave personal information behind.
Credit cards have a bad reputation among the budget-conscious (and rightly so), but you may want to use them in place of a debit card. A debit card might be convenient, but it drains the money directly from your checking or bank account. If a thief uses your card, the money is gone from your account, and you'll have a hard time convincing the bank that you didn't spend the money. With credit cards, the money isn't taken directly from your bank account, which provides you an extra layer of protection. The protection is enhanced if you only use cards with a low maximum; even if a thief steals your credit card and maxes it out, the potential loss is lower than it could have been.
Mailboxes are a common vector for identity theft, especially in apartment complexes. There have been numerous documented cases of an apartment-dwelling thief pilfering the neighbors' mailboxes and stealing their identities. Getting a lock for your mailbox is an excellent idea. If that's unfeasible, you may want to consider getting a P.O. Box and sending your financial mail there. This, of course, will entail some extra expense, but it's cheaper than struggling to recover from identity theft.
In our world, there's no absolute guarantee of security from theft, but with a little care and forethought, you can make yourself a harder target for identity thieves.
Take the Next Step
- It's more important than ever to safeguard your personal information. There's no surefire way to protect yourself from identity theft, but you can do a lot to cut down the risk with the above simple strategies. Start today and make yourself a harder target for identity thieves.
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