Linda Foley of San Diego didn’t think twice about filling out the tax forms her employer handed her. That is, until a credit card company called her to confirm her change of address — and she hadn’t moved. That’s when she learned her employer had used her Social Security Number to get credit cards and a cell phone. The trauma of that experience — and the months it took to repair her credit — led Foley to start the Identity Theft Resource Center to help the millions of others trying to recover their identities, too.
Identity theft costs Americans more than all other property crimes combined — more than burglary, theft and car theft, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Some cases take months or even years to resolve. Those who’ve suffered the worst kind of identity theft, where new accounts are opened in their names, are far more likely to report financial hardship, emotional distress and problems with work and family relationships than those whose existing accounts were taken over.
There’s no foolproof way to prevent identity theft. Too much of your private, personal information is already out there, stored in poorly-protected databases that are catnip to those who want to steal it. But you can take steps to dramatically reduce the odds of becoming a victim. Here are some of the most effective.
Get Stingy With Your Social
Your Social Security Number is the key to your identity. With it, identity thieves can pose as you to open new accounts, get health care and even get you arrested for crimes they commit. Yet Social Security Numbers have become an all-purpose identifier for private businesses that don’t really need to know them (even my vet asked for it once!). Social Security Numbers may be required for transactions involving credit, government benefits, banking and taxes. Otherwise, demand to know why you’re being asked for this number, what will happen if you refuse and what measures the business takes to safeguard private information from identity thieves. If you don’t like the answers, keep your numbers to yourself.
Be Vigilant Online
Ultimately, the second Target store breach — the one involving customers’ names, email addresses and phone numbers — may prove more costly than the compromise of millions of credit and debit cards. Thieves can use this nonfinancial information in phishing and other scams to dupe recipients into downloading viruses or revealing more personal data. The sophistication and variety of these scams mean you need to be ever-vigilant. Install, update and regularly run anti-malware software. Update your browsers and operating systems when security patches are released. Most importantly, be extremely wary about clicking on links in emails and social media. If you’re not absolutely sure of the source or where you’re going, don’t bite. You could end up on an identity thief’s site or downloading malware that could help the bad guys steal your identity.
Freeze Your Credit
Also known as a security freeze, this maneuver locks down your credit reports to help prevent identity thieves from opening new accounts in your name (the most traumatic and hardest-to-fix kind of identity theft). Credit freezes won’t prevent thieves from misusing your existing accounts, however, and your current lenders will still be able to view your files. You’re given a personal identification number to “thaw” your credit report when you want to apply for new credit, bank accounts, cell service or other business that requires a credit check.
Credit freezes involve some hassle and they aren’t free, unless you’re already an identity theft victim with a police report to prove it. The cost to freeze your report at each credit bureau is typically $10 (so $30 for all three bureaus), while thawing it usually costs another $10 per bureau. You should consider a freeze if you’ve already been victimized by new-account fraud, you’ve been told your Social Security Number has been compromised — or if it will just help you sleep better at night.
If a credit freeze sounds like too much work, you can quickly put a fraud alert on your credit reports for free. Just contact one of the three credit bureaus (it’s easy to do online), and they’re required to inform the other two. Fraud alerts signal to businesses that they should verify the identity of someone trying to open accounts in your name. The downside: Fraud alerts only last 90 days, although you can renew them, and there’s no guarantee a lender will heed them. If you’re already the victim of identity theft, you can qualify for an extended fraud alert that lasts seven years, but you probably should opt for a freeze instead.
E-file Your Taxes Early
“Stolen identity refund theft” — where someone else files a bogus tax return in your name and makes off with your refund — is a multi-billion-dollar business these days. The IRS has 3,000 of its employees working on identity theft cases, twice the number from a year ago, but if someone beats you to your refund, you may have to wait weeks or even months to see your money.
Filing your taxes electronically as soon as possible after tax season opens in late January can help reduce the odds thieves will grab your money first. (Sorry late filers — there’s always next year.) Also, if you’ve lost your wallet or been told your Social Security Number has been compromised, you should contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 800-908-4490, extension 245, to notify them of the issue.