On February 2, 2000, a young child died. The loss was devastating for his family, but what happened when his parents tried to file their tax return only compounded the tragedy. The Internal Revenue Service disallowed the dependency deduction for the 1-year-old - but it was not the IRS' fault.
At that time, the Bureau of Vital Statistics in the state where they lived allowed searches of death records that included Social Security numbers. Someone had stolen the child' identity; a theft that sent his parents into a nightmare.
Things have changed since 2000, but identity theft is still too frequent an event. While there is no guarantee, there are some practical steps you can take to minimize your chances of becoming a victim.
The single most important thing you can do to protect yourself from identity theft is to protect your Social Security number. A few practical steps you might take include:
- Reveal the number on a need-to-know basis only. Banks, employers and certain businesses might need the number to open an account or extend credit. If you are asked for your Social Security number by a business, do not provide it until you get the following questions answered:
Why is your number needed?
What will the business do with your number?
How will the business keep your number from being stolen and how will it be protected from unauthorized use?
What will happen if you don't provide your Social Security number?
- Do not carry your Social Security card or Social Security number in your wallet or purse (in case it is stolen).
- Ask your state not to include your Social Security number on your driverÂÂÂ’s license.
- Under no circumstances should you provide your Social Security number over the telephone to anyone you do not know.
The second step in protecting your identity is similar to protecting your Social Security card. Do not give a credit card number or bank account number over the phone to anyone you do not know.
Third, be careful with your trash. Thieves will go through it for credit card (and other credit) offers. These already have your Social Security number attached to them by the offering company, even if you don't see it on the application. In addition, bank statements, credit card receipts, insurance billings and other trash could include your Social Security or credit card number. Shred this information before throwing it out.
Be careful when surfing the Internet. Thieves have all sorts of ingenious methods to glean information from your Internet wanderings. For practical protection tips, go to www.OnGuardOnline.gov.
Use secure passwords. At a minimum, use a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, along with numbers. If special characters are allowed, include those in the password. DonÂÂÂ’t use passwords that include your name or other personal information.
Do not open or respond to emails from people or companies that you do not know. Under no circumstances should you verify an account number or other information even from a seemingly legitimate source. Your bank and other credit providers will not ask you for account verification or other personal information by email.
Keep tabs of your purse or wallet. If you are shopping, don't leave your purse in the shopping cart and go to another aisle to get something you forgot. Always keep it in sight.
If your state allows a credit freeze, take advantage of it. A credit freeze restricts access to your credit records unless you temporarily lift the freeze. This prevents thieves from opening an unauthorized credit account since the potential creditor won't be able to access your information. This will not affect your credit score.
Keep a list of all credit card numbers and accounts you have in case you need to call and cancel them.
Review your credit report often to determine if there are any unauthorized inquiries.
While there are a number of other tactics you can use to protect yourself, let's turn to minimizing losses. If your personal information has been compromised or your wallet or purse is stolen:
- Contact credit agencies such as Equifax and place a fraud alert on your account. Review your credit records.
- Contact all banks and credit card issuers with whom you have an account and inform them of the theft. Most likely, you will need to close the accounts and open new ones.
- File a police report.
There is no guarantee that you can avoid becoming a victim of identity theft. However, following a few simple steps will help minimize your chances of being victimized and help you recover if your information is compromised.
Have a terrific May and don't forget to thank a veteran for the freedoms we enjoy.