COLUMN: Identity theft - ways to prevent becoming a victim

— An estimated 8.6 million households were victims of identity theft in 2010, the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reports. I hear from people on a regular basis who have, unfortunately, been among those statistics.

Once the theft has been committed, it is hard to manage the fallout. Some stories are frustrating, to say the least, and many end up with bills from credit card purchases they did not make. Others are unable to claim state benefits or prove they do not have traffic infractions, for example, which can impede employment.

Identity theft is the unauthorized use or attempted use of an existing credit card or account, the unauthorized use of personal information to open a new account or another fraudulent purpose, or a combination of these.

Some have even experienced identity theft when filing their taxes. The IRS reports identify theft as a "dirty dozen tax scam" for 2012. Fraud filters caught 262,000 fake returns. Still, others were not so lucky. Those who experience this type of fraud have had their social security numbers fall into the wrong hands and someone else fraudulently collected tax refunds. It's important to know this: The IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email to request personal information. If you receive a scam email, claiming to be from the IRS, you can forward this email to phishing@irs.gov.

Here are ways to protect yourself and even your young children from identity theft. The State Attorney General’s office has extensive information about identity theft on their web site, which can be accessed at ag.ny.gov/consumer-frauds-bureau/identity-theft.

Here are just some basic ways to keep your identity safer:

  • Keep your Social Security card, birth certificate and any other important identification documentation in a secure place.
  • Consider shredding sensitive documents rather than simply throwing them away. (Some thieves will go through garbage to find personal information).
  • Make sure to lock up personal files at work and be aware of who has access to your workspace and employee information.
  • Do not give out personal information over the phone unless you initiated the call or are absolutely certain with whom you are speaking. Ask how any information that you provide will be used and secured.
  • Photocopy the contents of your wallet in case your wallet or purse is lost or stolen. Copy both sides of your license, credit cards, bank cards and all other pertinent information. Keep the copies in a secure place.
  • Carry only necessary credit or debit cards in your wallet.
  • Memorize personal identification numbers (such as your ATM card PIN) and online passwords. Never write them on the cards themselves.
  • When using your credit card in restaurants or stores, keep a constant eye on your card and who is handling it. Be aware of “swipe and theft” scams using card skimmers. A skimmer is a machine that records the information from the magnetic stripe on a credit card to be downloaded onto a personal computer later. Your card can be swiped on a skimmer by a dishonest employee and that data can then be used to make duplicate copies of your credit card.
  • Report lost or stolen credit, debit or ATM cards immediately.
  • Install and regularly update virus protection software on your computer to prevent a worm or virus from causing your computer to send out files or other stored information.
  • Password-protect your computer, cell phone and/or PDA (e.g.: Blackberry).
  • When shopping online, do business with companies that provide transaction security protection and carefully review privacy policies before making purchases. Make sure that you are actually on the web site you wish to be on - some online “phishers” create bogus sites that mimic real ones in order to capture unwary shoppers’ personal information.
  • Do not use your Social Security number on the Internet.
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