We live in a world of technology and while we can really benefit from that, there are some aspects to technology that can rain on your parade and really cause damage to you and your personal finances. That side of technology is most damaging when your information is hacked and your identity is stolen. Learning how to prevent identity theft will go a long way toward protecting you.
It seems that there are an awful lot of really smart people who use that intelligence for evil instead of good. All you need to do is just listen to the news and you’ll hear quite often of the hacking of accounts from mega-giants like Sony, the DNC, and lots of retailers like Target and Neiman Marcus. It even happened to me about a year ago when my online banking account was hacked and it caused a lot of anxiety and grief and tied my money up for weeks and weeks. I was fortunate that I didn’t suffer any permanent loss. So what can you really do about this threat?
What information really needs to be protected?
To determine your risk of identity theft, you first need to know what information can cause damage, and how much damage it can cause. This information is called “critical data”.
What is critical data?
- Social Security Number
- Birth Certificate
- Bank Account Number
- Driver’s License Number
- Credit Card Account Number
- Employee Identification Number
- Insurance Policy Number
- Tax Information
What is harmful data?
Any private investigator will tell you the best way to find out about someone is by looking at their habits. Just watch any crime drama on TV and you’ll see how that’s done. Identity thieves use the same tactics.
Yes, some of this information can be guarded, but some is much harder to control and that is called “harmful data”. It includes things such as your pet’s chip ID or any of your utility account numbers (gas, water, etc.) and even the information that’s printed on any unsolicited credit offers you get in the mail.
Paper information can be best safeguarded by using a shredder at home when you destroy it. A simple thing like your own unlocked mailbox can be a target. Dropping your mail off at the post office is your safest bet to protect it.
What is public data?
Public data is the information that is available to anybody who cares to look for it, just like it sounds. You can look information up online for just about anyone or anything if you have the most basic information, even a name and a city that they have lived in at one time.
Identity thieves can then use that public data to locate your “critical data”. Here’s a shocker for you: if an identity thief does use public data, chances are extremely high that they already know you personally. Even if you protect your information really well, the chances are good you would not protect it from this kind of person. They could be a friend or even a family member. They know things like:
- Email Address
- Home Address
- Telephone Numbers
- Social Media
- License Plate
- Vehicle ID Number
- Medical Information
- Employer Information
Public records maintained by the government such as property deeds, court filings, and driving records often have far more information about us than we care to admit. And the scary part is that it is very accessible to just about anyone! Just head down to your town hall and you can look right in the books to check out your neighbor’s information on file.
The problem with public data is that you cannot control it. That’s why it’s called public. And identity thieves are getting more and more creative when it comes to using public information to hack their victims.
So, what’s the best way to stop identity theft?
There are some federal and state laws now to try to deter and punish “hackers” like the Federal Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act of 2004. And here in NJ, we have the Identity Theft Prevention Act of 2006, but those laws haven’t stopped criminals from stealing your information and money.
The best way you can protect yourself is to set up a “security freeze” on your personal credit information.
That’s where the information that credit lenders like banks, car dealers, credit card and loan companies use to check on you and create new accounts. It’s also where the thieves try hard to gain access too.
What exactly is a security freeze?
A security freeze, also known as a credit freeze or credit report freeze, gives you the consumer the right to “freeze” or lock your credit information. While it is in effect, you can still access the information with a special code, but all others are barred from access. Here in NJ, that is a free option. However, in some areas of the US there may be a very small fee (such as $5) to take this action, but it is well worth it.
How long does a freeze last?
The freeze will last as long as you want it too. There may be times when you will want to “unfreeze” your account information like when you apply for a loan or a new credit card, but you can re-freeze your information as soon as you’d like after you have completed your applications.
How do you place a freeze?
All you need to do to place a freeze is to send a certified letter to all three credit bureaus or request it online. Here’s a sample letter:
Dear Credit Bureau:
I would like to place a freeze on my credit file effective immediately.
Your full name (and any former or maiden names)
Any address changes in the last 5 years
Social Security number
Date of birth
Make sure that you also include a copy of your official government ID (like a driver’s license) and some proof of residency (like a utility bill) in your letter. Then mail it right away either certified mail or overnight mail to each of the 3 credit bureaus.