10 ways to foil the privacy thieves
A few simple steps may keep your identity safe in a world of Dumpster divers, shoulder surfers and skimmers. Also: What to do if identity theft happens to you, and how to stop the spam.
“Personal privacy” may be the biggest oxymoron of the 21st century. From annoying streams of e-mail spam to the more insidious and costly crime of identity theft, Americans are facing an attack on their personal privacy unlike that seen by any prior generation.
Shielding your privacy with no risk of a breakdown may be impossible these days. But it’s critical to understand how your privacy can be compromised and the consequences of such a breach – and take a few simple steps to, if nothing else, better the odds in your favor.
Identity theft booming
This rather broad topic takes in any number of privacy crimes, including theft of a Social Security number, a credit or debit card, or even pilfering of phone calling cards. The numbers associated with identity theft are beginning to add up fast. A recent General Accounting Office report estimates that as many as 750,000 Americans are victims of identity theft every year. And that number may be low, as many people choose not to report the crime or, for that matter, even know they’ve been victimized.
More evidence of the extent of the problem:
- In November 1999, the Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft Data Clearinghouse was fielding about 455 calls a week. Two years later, that number had jumped to more than 3,000.
- MasterCard and Visa estimate that more than $114 million in credit-card related identity theft occurred in 2000 (not as stinging as it might seem, as those numbers represent less than one-tenth of 1% of annual sales volume). The government, which has a broader definition of identity theft, puts the number closer to $1 billion now.
- In one study by two California identity theft groups, victims spent an average of 175 hours per incident trying to unravel the problems caused by identity theft.
How it can happen
Officials say much of identity theft comes down to hands-on mischief – things like ‘Dumpster diving’, in which criminals sift though trash to find a credit card statement or solicitation that someone didn’t tear up, and ‘shoulder surfing’, where criminals try to spot calling card and personal identification numbers.
Knowing which tricks thieves prefer remains a quantifiable mystery. “80% of the victims who call us say they have no idea how it happened,” says Joanna Crane, program manager of the Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft Program.
Officials also acknowledge that the Internet has opened new avenues for theft. If nothing else, the Web allows thieves to send stolen data to most any worldwide location.
One popular scam involves fake mortgage brokers who dangle super low rates if the applicant is quick to provide personal data. Still another uses e-mails in which the sender poses as an Internet service provider asking for information: “Even though people are told that ISPs will never ask for your Social Security number, one scam was just shut down after 70,000 people responded to their e-mails,” notes Crane.
Then, as if the cost of some restaurant meals isn’t unsettling enough, there’s the infamous “skimmer”. “A skimmer is about the size of a credit card,” says Ellen Moriwaki, a senior product manager at CyberSource, a payment processing and risk management concern. “And a criminal buys off a waiter in a restaurant. When you give him your credit card, he rings it up but also runs it through the skimmer, which collects your credit card information. In exchange for $50 a card, a waiter can gather as many as 100 credit cards a night.”
A Social Security card can also reap long-term fraudulent benefits. Virgil Gardaya, a corporate vice president with the credit bureau Equifax, notes that a stolen wallet containing a Social Security card lets a criminal quickly set up dummy bank and savings accounts. The very presence of the account may prompt the bank to give the criminal a credit card. From there, the con artist may waste little time maxing out the card, or take a bit more time and build up the card’s buying power. That can mean fraudulent purchases as pricey as cars and boats.
“When I moved five years ago, I was alerted that two new accounts had been opened up under my name,” adds Gardaya. “They actually had statements being delivered to two different addresses.”
Simple ways to protect yourself
There’s no ironclad protection that guarantees that you’ll never fall victim to some form of identity theft. But there are steps you can take to shield your privacy, many of which are rather simple:
- Destroy private records and statements. Tear – or, if you prefer, shred – credit card statements, solicitations and other documents that contain private financial information.
- Empty your mailbox quickly so criminals don’t have a chance to snatch credit cards pitches. Consider locking your mailbox.
- Don’t carry your Social Security card with you, or any other card that may have your number. Don’t put your number on your checks. Leave your driver’s license number off your checks as well.
- Never leave ATM or gas stations receipts behind.
- Worried about credit card skimming? Pay with cash as often as possible.
- When making an online purchase, look in the lower right hand corner of your browser window. If you see the icon of a lock, that means you’re dealing with a secure site. If you don’t see one, you’ll be safer finding another merchant. Also, check out Web site privacy policies. Shy away from sites that don’t specifically say that they won’t pass out your name and information around to others.
- Stick to well-known retailers or sites that others have used to their satisfaction. Use only one credit card for online purchases. That way, if something amiss happens, it’ll be easier to spot on your bill.
- Check your credit report at least once a year to look for suspicious activity. If you spot something, alert your card company or the creditor immediately.
- Investigate credit bureau protections services. For instance, Equifax offers Credit Watch, which alerts you any time a change takes place with your credit report.
If something goes wrong:
Again, protecting yourself from security fraud is no sure thing. But there is plenty you can do if you uncover some wrongdoing:
First, contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus. Tell them that you’re an identity theft victim. Request that a “fraud alert” be placed in your file, along with a victim’s statement asking that creditors call you before opening any new accounts or changing your existing accounts.
Equifax To order a report:1-800-685-1111
or write: P.O. Box 740241,
Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
To report fraud: 1-800-525-6285
and write: P.O. Box 740241,
Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
Experian To order a report: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742)
or write: P.O. Box 2104,
Allen TX 75013
To report fraud: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742)
and write: P.O. Box 9532,
Allen TX 75013
TransUnion To order a report: 800-916-8800
or write: P.O. Box 1000,
Chester, PA 19022
To report fraud: 1-800-680-7289
and write: Fraud Victim Assistance Division,
P.O. Box 6790,
Fullerton, CA 92634
Contact the creditors for any accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Speak with someone in the security or fraud department of each creditor, and follow up with a letter.
File a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place. Get a copy of the police report in case the bank, credit-card company or others need proof of the crime.
Keep records of everything involved in your efforts to clear up fraud, including copies of written correspondence and records of telephone calls.
Whether a mere annoyance or a lucrative venue for thieves, solicitations via phone, mail or the internet may seem an inescapable element of modern life. But, like other privacy issues, there are steps you can take to mitigate the problem.
First, the Direct Marketing Association maintains a service through which consumers can remove themselves from mail, phone and e-mail solicitation lists used by association members.
Here’s the drill:
- To get off the mail list, write to Mail Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale, NY 11735. When giving your name, use full names, nicknames and any other combination that a solicitor may use.
- To get off the phone list, send your name, address and phone number to Telephone Preference Service, DMA, Box 9014, Farmingdale, NY 11735. Make sure you provide all phone numbers you may use.
You also might want to try these tips:
- If you get an unwanted e-mail, don’t click the “remove me” option that many such mails offer. In many cases, all that means is that the mail has hit an active address, which only means more solicitations.
- Set up an e-mail garbage address. Use one e-mail address for transactions and other activities that may lead to spams. Use another for all private communication.
- Besieged by telephone solicitations? Just tell them not to call again. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 stipulates that they have to do if you ask. If they happen to call again, you may be able to sue them for $500 in a “private right of action” in local court.
Contact your credit card company and find out how to take part in their “opt out” program. This prevents your name from being passed around to solicitors and other companies with whom your cardholder deals.