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Identity Theft and How to Prevent it

By: Chris Nickson - Updated: 13 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
 
Identity Theft Preventing Identity Theft

If one crime has come to dominate the digital age, it's identity theft. It can lead into a nightmare of bureaucracy, trying to claw back the person you are and regaining control of your bank accounts and credit. Whilst it's impossible to completely stop the possibility of identity theft - sometimes the factors are far beyond your control - you can lessen the likelihood of it happening to you and your family.

The Two Types of Identity Theft

Identity theft happens when someone has enough information about you to pose as you. Thieves can use that in a couple of different ways. There's the "account takeover," where a criminal will simply use your existing bank account and credit card, running up large bills. Then there's "application fraud," where a thief takes your information and opens new accounts in your name. This can take longer to detect, because the address given to companies probably won't be your real one.

How Identities are Stolen

It's surprisingly and scarily easy to obtain someone's credit card number or even some of their bank details. That loan application you filled out then threw in the bin? There's a goldmine on that paper. The old credit card slips you tossed into the rubbish? That's the key to your money. Ever had someone stand a bit too close at the ATM? They could be "shoulder surfing" - watching as you entered your PIN. What about those pre-approved credit card offers you received? Imagine if someone took one, filled it in and returned it, simply changing the address…it might be months before you knew. You've certainly received e-mails purporting to be from your bank, credit card company or another financial institution, wanting you to click on a link then verify all your details. How do you know they're real? You could have been the victim of a scam called "phishing" (pronounced fishing), and your identity has gone. Never forget something as obvious as a stolen wallet - think what that little piece of leather can reveal about you.

Really imaginative criminals can find out a lot about you online, from public records or even sites where you have to pay for information. By posing as your employer, they might be able to contact a credit bureau and gain access to your credit record and details. Finally, there's your personnel file at work, which contains plenty of information about you. The point is, for anyone who's determined, stealing an identity isn't going to be that difficult - unless you make it that way.

What to Do

The first thing is to know what you've got. Make a list of all your credit and debit cards, including their contact telephone numbers, and keep it in a safe place. Never carry more than two credit cards and a debit card with you, in case of theft. If you're going to be around people - in a city centre, for instance - keep your wallet in a less accessible place. Whenever you use an ATM, use your hand to shield you PIN number. Below are some things you should consider:
  • Get your credit report at least once a year, and study it carefully. If there's any suspicious activity, report it immediately. Review your bank and credit card statements monthly.
  • When you're using your card in a shop, watch as it's swiped, to ensure the clerk doesn't try to also run it through a "skimmer" that stores your information. Always take the receipt with you - don't throw it into the rubbish!
  • Buy a shredder. It's a perfect, secure way to dispose of those credit card receipts and financial junk mail. On top of that, the results are 100% recyclable. If you're expecting a card in the post and it doesn't arrive in a reasonable amount of time, contact the institution.
  • If someone calls claiming to be from your bank or credit card company, never give out any personal information on the phone. Only do that if you initiated the call, and you're certain that the person you're talking to is a legitimate employee of the company. Take nothing on trust.
  • The same applies on the online world. If you get an e-mail asking you to verify your information, don't click on the link. Instead, open your web browser and type in the proper address of the company (a search engine can find it for you). It might take longer, but it's a lot safer.
  • Make sure your computer has good anti-virus and firewall programmes to prevent hacking or spyware. Run a scan at least once a week.
  • Please don't use the same password for everything. Make them a mix of letters and numbers, and keep them memorised.
  • If you're making an online transaction, be certain it's secure (using https://www.....) with a locked padlock at the bottom of the screen. If it's not, don't proceed. Pay with a credit, rather than debit, card. It offers you greater financial protection in case of fraud.
  • Beware of those file-sharing programmes. You might be able to download music and movies, but others can also reach inside your computer. That alone is a good reason to password protect any files you have with personal and financial data.
Essentially, all it takes is a mix of caution, common sense and a suspicious mind. You can't be too careful. But then again, it's your identity that you're protecting.

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