Avoid Being a Victim of Identity Theft

By Sarah Russell

pic1It’s happened to me. About a year ago, someone got a hold of my bank card numbers. Fortunately, the crook made some international purchases, which immediately clued me in and my bank was quick to settle the whole thing. But most people aren’t so lucky. Here’s some information on identity theft.

Identity theft is a serious crime that’s growing each year. Victims of identity theft can spend months, or even years, trying to repair a ruined credit history, which can compromise your chances of getting a new job, a bank loan, insurance or even rental housing. Follow these steps to help keep your identity safe.

Protect Your Credit Card Number When Making Purchases

Check your receipts after making a purchase with your credit or debit card. In most cases, the printed receipt hides all but the last 4 digits of your credit card account number, but some terminals still print receipts that show all 16 digits of your account number and the expiration date. If you get one of these receipts, black out the numbers entirely before throwing it away. This is all the information a thief needs to make charges using your card. You’re also permitted by law to hide the first 12 digits of your account number on any copies of the receipt that the seller keeps.

It’s especially important to keep tabs on your receipts at restaurants. Think about it: You pay for your meal and then leave the signed receipt on your table for the waiter to pick up. But in a busy restaurant, it’s easy for a potential thief to “accidentally” bump your receipt off the table (or just steal it) and get your information. If the restaurant’s receipt shows all of your account information, black out the first 12 digits of your credit card number before leaving the restaurant.

Do You Really Need to Give Out Your Social Security Number?

Be very stringent about who you give your social security number to. You’ll probably need to share your number when you apply for credit or for a bank account, but sometimes a store or an organization will want to use it as an ID number, simply to identify you within their system. This is not only dangerous, it’s illegal. The law says that social security numbers aren’t to be used as ID numbers. If you’re ever unsure about giving out your social security number, ask if there’s an alternative. There usually is in most cases.

Destroy Documents That Contain Personal Informationpic2

Buy a paper shredder and use it to destroy any documents that contain credit card numbers, social security numbers, phone numbers, your date of birth and any other personal information before throwing them away. Any credit card offers should also be shredded. Thieves can fill out the applications and open a line of credit without you ever knowing. Don’t think that throwing out these documents is enough; identity thieves aren’t above going through the trash to find information that can help them get credit in your name.

If The Worst Happens

If you do become a victim of identity theft, take the following steps immediately:

  • Contact your credit card companies to let them know what’s going on, close your accounts and ask to have new cards issued to you.
  • Place a fraud alert on your file with any one of the three major credit bureaus. The other two will be notified automatically.
  • File a police report. You may need it to show to creditors as proof of the crime.
  • File a complaint with the FTC, which maintains a database of identity theft cases used by law enforcement agencies for their investigations.

It’s not fun to think about identity theft, but in this age of technology, you can’t afford not to. Identity thieves get smarter every day; just think of the recent rash of companies announcing that their client databases have been hacked into, exposing personal information. Some things are out of your control, but there are some simple precautions you can take to keep your personal information secured. Keeping your identity safe may be one of the most important things you do for your financial future.

Sarah Russell is a writer for Smart Young Money, a money management resource for young adults.

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