Wisdom Wednesday: How to Avoid Identity Theft

 

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In recent years, identity theft has become a much more common problem than it used to be. It is a very serious crime, and the perpetrator(s) can serve jail time if caught. Offenders who commit aggravated identity theft (those who use another person’s identity without legal permission and then commit a felony act) will get an extra two years tacked on to their prison sentence automatically. Aggravated identity thieves cannot receive probation.

The point being: identity theft is not a fun little game for either the perpetrator or the victim. The repercussions can be severe, damaging, and highly stress-inducing for the victim. Probably the most important thing to know about identity theft is that it can happen to literally anyone.

What is Identity Theft, Anyway?

Identity theft happens when either a person you know or a stranger somehow accesses your private information without you knowing about it. Once the thief has accessed your personal information (bank account number, credit card number, Social Security benefits information, etc), s/he will act as you in order to take possession of your money, resources or benefits.

This means that your bank account may be drained, your credit card could be charged for multiple expensive purchases,  your Social Security or other benefits may be stolen, and more. Since the perpetrator will be acting as you during these offenses – your name, reputation, achievements and credit score will all be put at risk.

If the perpetrator is experienced, s/he may be undetectable or untraceable, leaving you to clean up the mess that was made. Your finances can potentially be ruined, as can your reputation.

Can I Protect Myself Against Identity Thieves?

The answer to that is a complicated “Yes.” Protecting yourself against identity theft is possible, but you must be diligent. The most important first step in protecting yourself is to recognize the behaviors you engage in every day that put you at risk of having your personal information stolen and misused. Being aware of how and when thieves get ahold of your information will enable you to use more caution during certain situations.

Some of these behaviors include: online shopping, sharing your personal information with staff members at a place of business or office, using a cell phone or laptop with a public wireless connection, tossing the wrong things (pre-approved credit cards or other mail that contains personal info) into your trash can and using your debit card to withdraw money from an ATM.

During all of those activities, your personal information isn’t secure. However, there are things you can do to make sure your information is as protected as possible.

If you use the internet as your own personal shopping mall (and who doesn’t, these days?), make sure all of your account passwords are complex and different. Make it your practice to shop only on websites that begin with https:// – the added -s means they are a secure site. Never use the internet to shop, pay bills, or do any banking when you’re in a public place using an unsecured Wi-Fi connection. Any number of people will likely be sharing that public Wi-Fi connection, which means that they can easily “see” any personal information that you may be using.

Never give out personal information over the phone or via email. In fact, you should only provide someone with your Social Security number if absolutely necessary, and ideally only face-to-face. If you receive mail that contains personal info – shred it before tossing it in the bin. Delete any emails that request your personal info.

In order to maintain the safety of your personal information, make it your practice to check your bank and other account statements carefully and regularly. If you see any charges that you didn’t personally make, you will know that your information has been wrongfully accessed, and you’ll need to take immediate action.

If you have been a victim of identity theft and a creditor is attempting to collect a debt from you that was incurred by an identity thief, you may need to contact an attorney to ensure that you will have an excellent defense against any and all debts that were not made by you personally.

Image credit: Don Hankins

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7 Responses to Wisdom Wednesday: How to Avoid Identity Theft

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