By Steve Freidell
Land Line contributor
Do you ever leave your truck running, unlocked, with the keys and your wallet in plain sight? Of course you don’t, but you will leave your bank, credit card and Social Security information available for thieves to steal.
Identity theft is a rapidly growing problem in the U.S., but few of us take an active role in safeguarding our personal information. And those that do have often already been victimized. So just how easy is it to steal your identity?
It’s as easy a dropping a letter in the mail. For instance, when you make your credit card payment, do you write a check and enclose it with the credit card voucher and put it in your home mailbox with the red flag up? You might as well be advertising for someone to steal your name and your money.
Once they have that payment envelope, they have your checking account, credit card number and your signature. They will take nail polish remover and remove the payee name and amount and fill in a name of their choosing.
Once finished with your cash, they’ll sell your credit card info online. You may not be aware of what’s happening until you receive your bank statements a month later. By that time, the thieves and your money are long gone, leaving you to struggle for months notifying banks, merchants and credit card providers of the theft.
And this is just one technique criminals use. There are many, many other ways of obtaining your personal information. From foraging through trash to complex Internet scams, thieves are constantly finding new ways to steal your money.
Last year alone, $22.4 billion was lost in payment card theft. The number of all Americans affected was 2.5 percent. The average loss after bank reimbursement was $329.
So what can you do?
First, take a good assessment of your personal information security. In the example above, mail your payment from a more secure mailbox or don’t put your red flag up. Your mailman will find the mail when he delivers your daily mail.
Make your payments online as often as possible, but only do so on your bank’s secure website. If someone claiming to be from your bank is asking for personal information, it’s almost certainly a trap. Legitimate financial institutions don’t solicit personal information outside of their secure websites.
Also, never carry your Social Security card in your wallet. That’s the easiest way to provide thieves with the key piece of information they need to open bank accounts, obtain credit cards, and take out loans.
Look at how you dispose of your financial information. Do you put it in the trash where thieves can get to it easily? It would be better for you to file and or shred the information.
Everything that you throw away with your name on it is a potential asset to an identity thief. For just a few bucks you can buy a shredder for your home and destroy those documents before anyone else can mine your trash for them.
Examine closely how you safeguard your home computer. Do you have a wireless home network? Is each user password protected? It’s very easy to roam neighborhoods with a wireless detector looking for people with unprotected networks. Within a few minutes, even a relatively novice hacker can have access to all of your personal data.
Unlike a simple burglary, reporting identity theft is not as easy as calling the police and notifying your insurance company. In many cases, you have to prove you are the victim. When so many different financial institutions – and red tape – are involved, this isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds.
When these thieves strike, they hit you everywhere. You might not know it for months, especially if you’re out on the road. Take time today to protect your information. Get family members to understand that those documents are just as valuable as the keys to your home. Think like a thief and make sure you are not providing easy shortcuts to your personal information and hard-earned cash. LL
This material has been prepared for informational purposes only; it is not intended to provide and should not be relied upon for accounting, legal or tax advice.
Steve Freidell has assisted clients in their cash management, trading, and portfolio management of fixed income securities since 1975. Steve started his career at the First National Bank of Kansas City and later served as first vice president with Commerce Bank, where he served his clients for 25 years. In 2006, he joined the DeWaay organization, the financial management company used by OOIDA. Steve Freidell may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.