Last week, while attending the Illinois CPA Society annual conference, I had the privilege of seeing Frank Abagnale, the con artist turned FBI agent on whom the movie Catch Me If You Can is based. He shared some alarming statistics with us about white collar crime and especially identity theft.
I learned that we are all susceptible to identity theft. This is true even if we never use the Internet and we only spend cash that we keep in a safe at home (so you might as well use the bank). Here are a few of the tips I gleaned to make it less likely that you’ll be a victim:
Don’t show your birthday on Facebook. It’s easy enough for a criminal to figure out my mother’s maiden name since she comments on all my stuff, which is not going to go away. But I can hide my date of birth (although I do miss out on the Facebook birthday love) and I don’t show on my profile where I was born. Otherwise, due to facial recognition technology, all a criminal needs is a photo of me to find out several key pieces of personal information that many banks use to verify identity. In short: be careful what you share on social media.
Shred everything that lists your name and address. Mr. Abagnale used the example of the Nordstrom catalog. Tear off the page with your info on it and shred it using a micro-cut/confetti cut shredder. Even a cross-cut shredder allows your documents to be reassembled so pony up for the micro-cut to be sure (or you can do what I do and use the shreds as bedding for your worm compost, but that’s only for the tree huggers out there).
Avoid writing checks but when you have to, use a uni-ball 207 pen. After learning all the ways that check forgery happens, I’m now much more likely to pay the handyman in cash while paying as many of my bills as possible electronically. When you write a check, you’re essentially giving someone your name, address, checking account and routing numbers. When you write a check at the store, they also get your driver’s license and birthday!
Do not use a debit card. The safest way to spend money from a fraud protection standpoint is to pay with a credit card. Basically, if someone steals your debit card info, you’re out the cash while the bank investigates, which can take months. If someone uses your credit card fraudulently, you’re out nothing. The card company removes the charge as soon as it’s reported and unless they find that YOU’RE attempting fraud by reporting a transaction you actually initiated, you’re off the hook.
This one comes with a caveat though. If you don’t have the budgeting tools in place to pay the card in full each month, then consider using cash only until you work out a system. Otherwise, you can find yourself running up debt instead.
Use a real time credit monitoring service. They must monitor all three credit reporting agencies and they must report suspected fraud in real time. In other words, you get a text or email or call as soon as someone tries to open credit using your information. Sending a letter or a summary every 90 days is useless because the damage will already be done. You must know immediately if something is fishy so you can minimize the damage
The bottom line is that even if you’ve not had any issues to date, there’s a very strong chance that your identity can be stolen. Do your best to make it more challenging for thieves to use any information they have and close the gaps against new opportunities. As they say, better safe than sorry!