When you discuss Identity Theft and protecting your privacy, most people think of credit card fraud, and perhaps check fraud. But protecting your identity in today’s world is much, much broader in scope which requires a bit more vigilance than it did just three to five years ago. Today, you not only have to protect yourself from financial crimes, but you also need to protect your identity in terms of your reputation and persona. Having your identity stolen and used improperly on a social network can be just as detrimental as having your credit card number stolen. You could be turned down for a job, college admission or apartment due to someone who has used your identity on a social networking site and posted obscene or illegal content. However, it’s just as bad if you personally post objectionable material on your social networking pages that will reflect poorly on you to individuals reviewing your applications and inquiries. This is why I am offering up this guide as an outline of tools and tips to help protect you out there. If there is one rule of advice I hope you take from this, it is that you can’t be paralyzed by fear and believe you are protecting yourself by avoiding social networks, online commerce, or other activities. Regardless of your participation in such activities, you are still vulnerable to having fraud committed in these realms and delivery channels. The most important advice I can give you is this, be responsible for yourself and take common sense precautions which I will outlined below in my 2 Rules to Identity Protection.
If you don’t review your banking and credit card transactions regularly, you are helping an identity thief commit fraud against you. In my day job, I find it remarkable how many phone calls I take from people who are inquiring about a Bill Payment transaction they sent three, four, or even six months ago. Did you not notice the money coming out of your account before now? If you don’t take a more active role in protecting your own identity, what makes you think others will?
Not only must you review your statements, you should create an online account with your financial institution(s) in which you can track your transactions periodically throughout the month. Better still, use a financial software application such as Quicken in which you can setup regular online connections to your bank, credit union (best bet), credit cards, and other financial accounts. I use Quicken religiously, probably three to five times a week to update all my financial transactions ranging from checking to credit cards to loans and investments. I can see all of my account transactions and if anything out of the ordinary appears, I know it as the earliest time and can contact the appropriate institution or merchant to inquire or file a dispute against the transaction. I also scan all my receipts and important documents relating to transactions into Quicken. Quicken attaches these images to the relevant transaction so you don’t have to go looking for the receipt in that shoe box at the bottom of your closet!
At the absolute very least, you should pull your personal Credit Report every six months. This way you can see if any fraudulent accounts have been opened in your name. It is also provides you with the benefit of looking over your information that is contained in your credit report for accuracy. Credit Bureaus have to correct any incorrect information that you find in your credit report. The more information you have available and at your disposable to make your claim, the better. You should pull reports from all three of the major reporting agencies. The contact information for these agencies are available on the Darkcyte Resources page.
Another item I would like to mention under Rule #1 is that of credit monitoring services. This is a controversial subject in which many people are polarized on. Some believe the monitoring services are a rip-off while others believe they provide a valuable service to the consumer. I am not going to review monitoring services here, but please do know that not all services are created equal! Many of the ‘free’ credit report sites require you to sign up for their credit monitoring services. All the major credit reporting agencies must provide you with a free credit report annually, without any strings attached. So do not fall for any services you do not wish to try or pay for. Personally, I do subscribe to a service through American Express. I’ve been using this service for close to a decade and costs about $20 per month to monitor both myself and my wife. We are provided not only with alerts for any changes to our credit profiles on all three major credit reporting bureaus, but we can also pull all three reports at any time, as often as we like. I take comfort in receiving my monthly email from them informing me that no new information has been reported to my file. For me, it’s well worth the $20 a month, but you will have to decide for yourself whether it’s a value to you or not.
One last comment on this subject in regards to monitoring services. I’m sure you’ve seen the commercials for services such as LifeLock which guarantee your identity and offer “Identity Theft Insurance” protection if you become a victim of Identity Theft while using their services. Again, I am not going to review individual services here, but you want to do your homework on these companies and make sure they are doing everything they are promising they are doing. Often, you can do these things on your own for little or no cost. However, it isn’t always convenient to do so and you also have to remember to renew some items on a periodic basis to maintain the protection. Such is the case with putting a fraud alert on your credit files. It may be easier to pay a service to keep this protection in place along with their other services.
There are warning signs to be alert for that may tip you off that you are on the verge of becoming a victim of Identity Theft, or that you already are one.
There are numerous activities you can perform to help prevent you from becoming an identity theft victim.
If you believe you are a victim, follow these steps:
Step 1: Contact the credit bureaus - Contact the fraud departments at each bureau. Explain that you are a victim of identity theft and that you would like to be contacted personally before any credit is issued in your name. Again, the contact information for the three major credit reporting agencies is available here on the Darkcyte Resources page.
Step 2: Obtain a copy of your credit report - If you have a monitoring service which provides you with free reports, do so immediately. If not, order your credit report from each agency to check for accounts that may have been fraudulently opened in your name. If you are a victim of identity theft, or even potentially a victim, you are entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each of the bureaus. It is important that you get a copy from each of the bureaus because they are not always identical.
Step 3: Contact your local authorities & file a police report - You will always be taken more seriously by financial institutions and companies when you have a copy of a police report.
Step 4: Contact your Postmaster - You will want to file an official report with your post office if you believe your mail is vulnerable to theft. If you believe you were a victim due to the theft of your mail, make an official report to your local Postmaster.
Step 5: Contact the Social Security Administration and your DMV - If you believe your Social Security number has been compromised, you will want to contact the Social Security Administration and speak to someone about potentially having your Social Security Number changed. You will want to do the same at your local Department of Motor Vehicles if you believe your driver’s license number has been compromised.
Step 6: Contact the financial institutions and companies that granted credit in your name - Call the financial institution or issuing company to obtain the name of the individual, title, and mailing address for whom you should speak in regards to fraudulent activities. Although it is fine to speak to them ahead of time, make sure you communicate with them in writing so that you can maintain verifiable records. I suggest sending items via certified letters or at least via FedEx or UPS so that you have a record of the mailing. Get ALL promises of action in writing, insist upon it.