One of the easiest things you can do to keep more of your own money is to guard it from theft. I’m not talking about fighting off some criminal trying to steal your wallet on the street. No, I’m talking about something more sinister. Theft that occurs without you realizing what’s going happening. Theft that happens partly as a result of your own lack of knowledge. The theft I’m talking about is identity theft.
Identity theft is a huge problem and it’s getting bigger every day. According to 2 studies done in July 2003 (Gartner Research and Harris Interactive), approximately 7 million people became victims of identity theft in the prior 12 months. That equals 19,178 per day, 799 per hour, 13.3 per minute. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, a non-profit organization, victims now spend an average of 600 hours recovering from this crime, often over a period of years. Three years ago the average was 175 hours of time, representing an increase of about 2470%. Based on 600 hours times the indicated victim wages, this equals nearly $16,000 in lost potential or realized income. That’s a significant amount of money.
Identity theft comes in many forms. Among the most popular are:
Dumpster Diving – As the name implies, this involves thieves going through your garbage to find old mail you’ve discarded which may contain personally identifiable information like bank account numbers or credit card information. The bad guys can potentially use this information to gain access to your accounts and steal your money. Finding discarded pre-approved credit card offers in your trash is an easy way for a thief to cash in on your identity.
Phishing – This involves the use of email to gain access to your private information. You may receive an email which looks to be from your bank. The email may suggest that one or more of your accounts has been compromised and asks you to verify your account information using a simple form. DON’T DO IT. The email was likely sent by a criminal hoping you’ll fill out the information and hit the “Submit” button. The information doesn’t go to your bank at all but directly to the criminals instead. No financial institution will request your personal account information by email. If you get an email like this, report it to your financial institution immediately.
Employee Theft – This involves an employee at a business you patronize selling your private credit card information to a third party. If you give your credit card to an employee at a retail store, the potential exists for that employee to steal your credit card number.
What can you do to protect yourself from identity thieves? There are a number of simple steps you can take to protect yourself. Included are:
Buy a shredder – This is probably the simplest and cheapest way to protect yourself. Shred all personal information before you throw it in the trash. This includes all bank statements, credit card statements and pre-approved credit card offers. If the crooks can’t read your information, they can’t steal your identity.
Use you financial institution’s online banking service – This is an easy way to reduce the amount of paper you receive from your financial institution. Plus, if you check your account online frequently, you’re more likely to notice unusual activity taking place on your account.
Use email carefully – Do not respond to unusual emails asking for personal information even if they appear to be from your bank. Chances are, the email is fraudulent.
Check your credit report – Everyone can check their credit report for free once each year. I urge you to do this to see if you notice any unusual activity. Are there reports showing you applied for credit cards or loans that you don’t remember? If so, contact the credit bureau immediately to report this activity.
Identity theft continues to grow each year. Only by being aware and alert can you stop identity thieves in their tracks. Don’t make yourself an easy target.