The threat of identity theft has become part of our lives. We all know someone who has been a victim. And we know, or know someone who knows, the pain—financial and emotional—that this crime causes.Unfortunately, no one has created the perfect shield against identity theft. But you can take some smart steps to help prevent it and to minimize its effects.
Secure your SSN
Your Social Security number (SSN) is the most widely accepted form of identification. You need it to fill out all types of forms, including forms to obtain credit cards, credit reports, federal benefits, mortgages, and healthcare benefits.
To protect your SSN, don’t carry your Social Security card. If you have another card with your SSN—an employee or student identification card, for instance—don’t carry it with you. If you must carry a card with your SSN, such as a health insurance card, make a photocopy of it and cut off the last four digits of your SSN. Hospitals will accept this truncated number, if you have a life-threatening emergency.
Never allow a merchant to put your SSN on a check that you write. Legally, merchants can’t ask for your SSN. If a merchant insists, threaten to complain to the Better Business Bureau. And don’t give the merchant your SSN.
Don’t fall for phony phone calls
Don’t give any personal information to anyone unless you initiated the inquiry. Identity thieves routinely trick people into providing confidential information by claiming to represent legitimate companies or government agencies. Know who you’re talking to. If you have doubts, ask for a company name and a supervisor. Then, do some investigating to make sure the person is legit. If he is, you can call back to provide the requested information.
Teenagers and the elderly seem particularly susceptible to identity theft via fraudulent phone calls. Many times, they can be talked into giving information just because the contact person sounded so “nice on the phone.”
Check bills and bank statements
Pay attention to bank-account statements and credit card bills. When I had my credit card number stolen, I was able to report the bogus charges quickly because I immediately spotted them on my credit card bill. If you note a discrepancy on a bill or if a bill doesn’t arrive on time, contact the company right away. If you’re a victim of identity theft, your losses will be limited to $50 per card by federal and state law. But you’ll have to prove that you did not make the charges.
If you have a bank debit card that doubles as a credit card, the money is removed from your account immediately. If a thief uses this type of card, you have no legal protection.
Examine those credit reports
Review your credit reports at least once a year. Make sure no unauthorized accounts have been opened and no unauthorized changes have been made to your accounts. Also, check that all reported information is correct. If not, file a grievance claim immediately.
Usually, filing a claim is a simple process, and you can do it on-line. The credit reporting companies can do a full investigation and correct any errors. Be diligent: Using this process will keep identity thieves away from your accounts because they know you’re on top of things.
How to report identity theft
Close any account that you believe has been compromised. Identity thieves move fast and can run up charges in the blink of an eye. If you suspect someone has opened an account in your name, you may need to provide an affidavit, stating that you didn’t open the account. A generic identity theft affidavit is available from the Federal Trade Commission at www.consumer.gov/idtheft
. This site is loaded with valuable information.
Contact the security or fraud department at each of your credit card companies. Take the names and phone numbers of the people you talk to. Call one of the credit reporting agencies and place a fraud alert on your credit files. This action can make it harder for a thief to open credit accounts in your name.
If you have evidence of fraud, file a criminal report with your local police. If your local police don’t handle this crime, contact your county or state police. Many creditors require a police report before they will resolve a dispute.
Follow up your phone calls with letters outlining the fraudulent activities. Many companies have a fraud dispute form they will send to you. Make a copy before mailing it back and keep good records. Mail all supporting information promptly, using certified mail.
Be vigilant and diligent
No one can be 100% safe from identity theft. But you can take some intelligent precautions. Protect your SSN and personal information. Monitor your bills and statements. Review your credit reports. Keep good records. And if you do become a victim of identify theft, act quickly and be persistent. Remember, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Cindy Diccianni, RN, is a Certified Senior Advisor (CSA), a Certified Long Term Consultant (CLTC), a Registered Investment Advisor, and a Registered Representative with Leigh Baldwin & Company. She is affiliated with Ortner, O’Brien & Ortner Advisory Group, Inc. in Malvern, Pennsylvania. Contact her at Cindy@taxlegalfinancial.com.