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Identity Theft Protection

Things You Need to Know about Protecting Your Identity

[Portions of the following information courtesy of the United States Federal Trade Commission]

identity theft protectionIdentity theft protection is an increasingly complex subject, covering social security numbers, credit cards, banking information, passwords and much more. In today's high-tech environment, identity thieves have numberous ways of stealing your identity. The information below should be helpful in protecting yourself from identity theft and keeping your information safe.

When should I give out my Social Security number?

Your employer and financial institutions will need your Social Security number for wage and tax reporting purposes. Other businesses may ask you for your Social Security number to do a credit check if you are applying for a loan, renting an apartment, or signing up for utilities. Sometimes, however, they simply want your Social Security number for general record keeping. Many of these businesses do not provide adequte protection from identity theft. If someone asks for your Social Security number, ask:

  • Why do you need my Social Security number?
  • How will my Social Security number be used?
  • How do you protect my Social Security number from being stolen?
  • What will happen if I don't give you my Social Security number?
  • What security measures do you use to protect me from identity theft?

If you don't provide your Social Security number, some businesses may not provide you with the service or benefit you want. Getting satisfactory answers to these questions will help you decide whether you want to share your Social Security number with the business. The decision to share is yours.

Personally, I do give my Social Security number out to anyone unless I know it is absolutely necessary. Do not give your Social Security number to doctors, dentists and other service providers who routinely ask for it--they don't need it and most of them do not provide adequate protection of your information.


Are companies allowed to print my entire credit card number on my receipt?

Beginning December 5, 2006, companies must not print your credit or debit card expiration date or more than the last 5 digits of your card number on your electronic receipt. The law doesl allow receipts that are hand written or mechanically imprinted to show your entire number and expiration date, even after December 4, 2006. Note: The law does not prohibit companies from printing your full credit card number on the receipt they keep, which is where your information is most at risk. As many as third of all the merchant copies of receipts I check have the entire credit card number on them. You need to black out your credit number on the merchant's receipt before giving it back to them. You have the right to do this, and they cannot prevent you from doing it. I do it all the time, and if the person behind the counter looks puzzled I explain why I'm doing it. [more]


Other ways to protect your identity information

Place passwords on your credit card, bank, and phone accounts. Avoid using easily available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security number or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers. When opening new accounts, you may find that many businesses still have a line on their applications for your mother's maiden name. Ask them if you can use a password instead.

Secure personal information in your home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help, or are having work done in your home.

Ask about identity information security procedures in your workplace or at businesses, doctor's offices or other institutions that collect your personally identifying information. Find out who has access to your personal information and verify that it is handled securely. Ask about the disposal procedures for those records as well. Find out if your information will be shared with anyone else. If so, ask how your information can be kept confidential.

Don't give out personal information on the phone, through the mail, or on the Internet unless you've initiated the contact or are sure you know who you're dealing with. Identity thieves are clever, and have posed as representatives of banks, Internet service providers (ISPs), and even government agencies to get people to reveal their Social Security number, mother's maiden name, account numbers, and other identifying information. Before you share any personal information, confirm that you are dealing with a legitimate organization. Check an organization's website by typing its URL in the address line, rather than cutting and pasting it. Many companies post scam alerts when their name is used improperly. Or call customer service using the number listed on your account statement or in the telephone book.


Treat your mail and trash carefully

Deposit your outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office, rather than in an unsecured mailbox. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox. If you're planning to be away from home and can't pick up your mail, call the U.S. Postal Service at 1-800-275-8777 to request a vacation hold. The Postal Service will hold your mail at your local post office until you can pick it up or are home to receive it.

To thwart an identity thief who may pick through your trash or recycling bins to capture your personal information, tear or shred your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, expired charge cards that you're discarding, and credit offers you get in the mail. To opt out of receiving offers of credit in the mail, call: 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688). The three nationwide consumer reporting companies use the same toll-free number to let consumers choose not to receive credit offers based on their lists. Note: You will be asked to provide your Social Security number which the consumer reporting companies need to match you with your file.


Don't carry your Social Security number card; leave it in a secure place

Give your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary, and ask to use other types of identifiers. If your state uses your Social Security number as your driver's license number, ask to substitute another number. Do the same if your health insurance company uses your Social Security number as your policy number.

Carry only the identification information and the credit and debit cards that you'll actually need when you go out.

Be cautious when responding to promotions. Identity thieves may create phony promotional offers to get you to give them your personal information.

Keep your purse or wallet in a safe place at work; do the same with copies of administrative forms that have your sensitive personal information.

When ordering new checks, pick them up from the bank instead of having them mailed to your home mailbox.


I have a computer and use the Internet. What should I be concerned about?

You may be careful about locking your doors and windows, and keeping your personal papers in a secure place. Depending on what you use your personal computer for, an identity thief may not need to set foot in your house to steal your personal information. You may store your Social Security number, financial records, tax returns, birth date, and bank account numbers on your computer. These tips can help you keep your computer – and the personal information it stores – safe.

Virus protection software should be updated regularly, and patches for your operating system and other software programs should be installed to protect against intrusions and infections that can lead to the compromise of your computer files or passwords. Ideally, virus protection software should be set to automatically update each week. The Windows XP operating system also can be set to automatically check for patches and download them to your computer.

Do not open files sent to you by strangers, or click on hyperlinks or download programs from people you don't know. Be careful about using file-sharing programs. Opening a file could expose your system to a computer virus or a program known as "spyware," which could capture your passwords or any other information as you type it into your keyboard.

Use a firewall program, especially if you use a high-speed Internet connection like cable, DSL or T-1 that leaves your computer connected to the Internet 24 hours a day. The firewall program will allow you to stop uninvited access to your computer. Without it, hackers can take over your computer, access the personal information stored on it, or use it to commit other crimes.

Use a secure browser – software that encrypts or scrambles information you send over the Internet – to guard your online transactions. Be sure your browser has the most up-to-date encryption capabilities by using the latest version available from the manufacturer. You also can download some browsers for free over the Internet. When submitting information, look for the "lock" icon on the browser's status bar to be sure your information is secure during transmission.

Try not to store financial information on your laptop unless absolutely necessary. If you do, use a strong password with a combination of letters (upper and lower case), numbers and symbols. A good way to create a strong password is to think of a memorable phrase and use the first letter of each word as your password, converting some letters into numbers that resemble letters. For example, "I love Felix; he's a good cat," would become 1LFHA6c. Don't use an automatic log-in feature that saves your user name and password, and always log off when you're finished. That way, if your laptop is stolen, it's harder for a thief to access your personal information.

Before you dispose of a computer, delete all the personal information it stored. Deleting files using the keyboard or mouse commands or reformatting your hard drive may not be enough because the files may stay on the computer's hard drive, where they may be retrieved easily. Use a "wipe" utility program to overwrite the entire hard drive.

Look for website privacy policies. They should answer questions about maintaining accuracy, access, security, and control of personal information collected by the site, how the information will be used, and whether it will be provided to third parties. If you don't see a privacy policy or if you can't understand it consider doing business elsewhere.

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