Springfield Business Journal Articles


Protecting Your Personal Information From Others

Identity Theft. What is it, How does it happen, and what can you do to prevent it?

Identity theft is the theft and use of your personal information. Identity theft usually involves credit card numbers but can also include your social security number, bank account numbers, driver's license number, birth date, mother's maiden name, and any other personal information.

A thief can obtain your personal information in a number of different ways, both low tech and high tech. Low tech theft of personal information can involve the theft of a purse or wallet or the theft of mail. A thief could find a credit card receipt with your number and signature on it, possibly by searching your trash. A thief could stand behind you at an ATM to steal your security code or stand next to you at a public phone to steal your calling card number.

Credit card numbers are often stolen by telemarketing scams. A thief can call your home and tell you that you have won a prize but that he needs your credit card information to pay for shipping or to verify your address. Likewise, thieves can call to solicit contributions for non-existent charities.

In addition to these low tech methods which thieves have been using for years, there are now many high tech methods and devices that thieves can and do use. One such device is a small machine that can read and record credit card numbers instantly. There have been many instances this year in the United States involving these machines. Waiters at restaurants have been running credit cards through the device when processing the bill. It takes only seconds, and the customer never sees the theft because the waiter has taken the credit card to another room to generate the receipt. Thieves are also accessing personal information by hacking into internet sites and personal computers.

Once a thief obtains your information, he can do more than make illegal charges to your credit card. Thieves have been able to empty bank accounts and obtain loans with stolen information. They have claimed government benefits. They have used stolen information to obtain employment.

So what can you do to protect yourself? You need to be aware and protect your information. Treat your personal information like the important asset that it is. Do not give your personal information to anyone who does not need to have it. For example, many retail stores now ask personal information at check out, such as your phone number or zip code. Occasionally they ask for more important information such as your driver's license number, even when you are not writing a check. Often customers don't stop to consider that the stores do not need this information, and customers do not have to provide it to them. Before you give anyone any personal information, ask yourself, "Why does this person want the information and is it necessary to complete my transaction?"

Likewise, do not print your personal information unless it is necessary. Do not have your social security number printed on your checks. Do not have your social security number printed on your driver's license. (You can now tell the Secretary of State's office that you do not want your social security number on your driver's license, and that field will be left blank.) Do not carry bank account or other information with you if possible.

Protect your mail, both your incoming mail and your outgoing mail. Use a secure mail box, and do not leave mail for the postal carrier to pick up.

Remove your name from credit bureau marketing lists. This will reduce the number of pre-approved credit offers you receive (which can easily be stolen from your mail). You can remove your name from the marketing lists of all three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and Trans Union) by calling 8885-OPT-OUT.

Do not give your personal information to anyone who calls you unless you know the company or organization is reputable. If you are interested in the offer but are not familiar with the company, ask that information be mailed to you.

Review all of your bank statements and credit card statements each month. Contact the institution immediately if you notice any unauthorized charges. You may be liable for the charges if you do not report them promptly. Also review your credit report and the social security report that you receive from the government. (You can order a credit report from Equifax by calling 800-759-5979, from Experian by calling 800-682-7654 and from Trans Union by calling 800-888-4213.) The theft of your personal information can cause serious financial difficulties. The earlier you realize that your information has been stolen and take action, the better off you will be.

Finally, be careful while doing your holiday shopping. Stores are crowded, and shoppers are in a hurry. Make sure that your credit card is returned to you. Keep your receipt. Do not provide personal information to the sales people unless necessary, and then do not state your personal information where others can hear. Write the information down for the sales person. Take the time to protect your personal information so that your holidays are not ruined by fraud.
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