How to Avoid Identity Theft

By Aleen Crispino, special writer

By all reports identity theft is on the rise, affecting nearly 10 million people in 2012 and more than 28 million people since 2003. It is equally alarming that almost as many cases go undetected or unreported. Read on to learn more about ways thieves steal personal information and how you can safeguard against identity theft.


You are standing at an ATM machine and type in your PIN number. Is the innocent-looking person behind you a “shoulder surfer,” memorizing your PIN number to make future withdrawals? If you discard your receipt, will you become the victim of a dumpster-diver who can retrieve your account number from the waste basket?

These are just two of the many ways an identity thief can steal your personal information, according to Patricia Fleming, an investigator for the state Department of Banking and Insurance.

Fleming is the author a series of identity theft awareness forums about  potential hazards faced in banks, hotels, restaurants, and even mailboxes and personal computers.

For example, when the restaurant server takes your bill and credit card at the end of the mail, these items are usually brought somewhere out of sight. Without you noticing, a “cloning machine, a little device the size of a cell phone” could be used to make an exact copy for that person’s use, or even to be sold to someone else. Even leaving your credit card exposed on the restaurant table can be dangerous: Someone could walk by and take a picture of the front of the card with their cell phone camera. (Fortunately, most major credit card companies print the security number on the back.)

The risk of identity theft remains present as you return to your hotel room after a meal: Hotel key cards hold important information if you paid for the room with a credit card, including your name, address, and credit card number. When you return these key cards, the hotel personnel demagnetizes and reuses each one. Always one to practice what she preaches, Fleming says, “I don’t return mine [key cards] and I’ve never had a problem.” This keeps her information safe and secure.

Fleming also recommends checking monthly credit card statements for unwanted charges. “You can tell a credit card company that any charge over $500 needs to be cleared through a telephone call with you, the credit card holder, before it goes through,” she suggests. Many companies already follow similar practices. Additionally, instead of signing the back of your credit card, write “See Photo ID” instead. This will encourage the cashier to make a visual identification.

Another strategy to prevent identity theft and other financial exploitation is the simply be more selective about how you disclose personal information. For example, your dentist’s office may ask for your social security number, claiming such disclosure is required. Fleming says this is not true and it is your choice to provide it or not. This is also true of other applications, such as the state Department of Motor Vehicles. (As of January 2006, Medicare numbers will no longer be the same as the recipient’s social security number, which may be helpful in filling out healthcare forms.)

Precautions against identity theft can also be taken at home. Fleming advises against leaving mail in your mailbox for pickup — others may steal personal information enclosed in your letters. When ordering checks from the bank, ask when delivery can be expected or pick them up yourself to ensure that your account number cannot be taken. She also recommends purchasing a shredding machine — preferably a “cross-shredder,” which shreds both vertically and horizontally. Credit and debit card receipts, pre-approved credit card offers, and even magazine mailing labels should all be shredded. “Do not throw away anything that has your name on it without shredding it first.”

Lastly, personal computers have opened a whole new avenue of identity theft threats. Look for the padlock symbol on the URL bar to indicate that an online shopping site or banking account site is secure. Do not provide account numbers in response to emailed requests purporting to be from banks or credit card companies as these are probably hoaxes. Use quality and reliable adblocking programs (Avast is downloadable for free) to protect your computer from adware, spyware, and viruses. Make sure to complete all Windows security updates.

DO:

  • Get a copy of your credit report, but save it to an EXTERNAL disk or other device.
  • Make sure you have the latest anti-virus and anti-spyware programs on your computer.
  • Update your computer when new updates are available, Make sure these updates are configured properly.
  • Password protect all sensitive files.
  • Be cautious when using a Wi-Fi hotspot (make sure you are on a secure network; these are usually paid or require passwords.)

DON’T:

  • Respond to any emails from your “bank.” If you think the email is legitimate, call your bank’s customer service number.
  • Send any personal information over a wireless network. Avoid paying bills online with Wi-Fi hotspots.
  • Perform any financial transactions in a hotspot unless you know the website has an SSL-encrypted connection (looking for the lock icon at the bottom right-hand of the screen OR an “https” at the beginning of the URL).