Courtesy of North Island Credit Union's Island Business Connection Newsletter, Winter 2008 issue
Nearly 10 million people were victims of identity theft last year and the incident rate is doubling every two to three years. North Island Credit Union encourages its members and other consumers to take steps now to reduce exposure to these crimes that cost the average victim 175 hours of personal time and $1,500 to correct.
One of our sponsoring member credit unions, North Island Credit Union of San Diego, California, recommends that you take several steps to protect your identity. First, make it difficult for criminals to obtain your social security number (SSN), your birth certificate, and all financial information. Treat these items like you would valuable jewelry. If you don't use them, don't carry them around with you. Keep them under lock and key. If someone requests this information in person, by phone, mail, email, or on a web site, you need to determine if it is a legitimate request. It's always better to politely refuse and stand fast in your resistance to share this information. [Note: the American Consumer Council and the California Consumer Council never ask for a member's SSN or checking account information].
If the medical insurance card in your wallet shows your SSN or that of another family member, ask your insurer to provide you with a card that does not contain your SSN. Alternatively, carry a photograph of the insurance card with only the last four digits of your SSN.
Given the number of financial statements, loan documents, and credit offers that arrive in the mail every week, we recommend that you rent a Post Office box, or have a locking mailbox at your home or business for confidential incoming mail. We also encourage our members to be careful with outgoing mail. Take it into the post office. Don't leave outgoing mail with payments and other financial information in an unsecured place. It's better to be safe than sorry.
In terms of paying your bills online, this actually has become one of the safest ways to conduct financial transactions provided the online merchant has encrypted software that prevents hackers from stealing your information in transit. Most of the established online payment systems are able to protect against identity theft thanks to sophisticated firewalls which they built into their software systems.
On that note, always be suspicious of an unsolicited email that asks you to provide any financial information. There are lots of scams out there and it's always better to "junk" these emails or telephone your financial institution (always use the number of the back of your credit card -- never use the the telephone number in the email) first before you ever give out confidential financial information or your SSN. Remember, most reputable financial institutions do not email you asking you to share your confidential financial information.
Also, it's safer to use a credit card than a debit card when buying items online. Also, we recommend that you use one credit card for all of your online transactions since it's easier to track any fraudulent activity this way.
Under federal law, you are entitled to receive a free credit report every 12 months from all three of the major credit bureaus. This includes toll free calls to: Experian, 888-397-3742 -- www.experian.com; Equifax, 800-437-4619 -- www.Equifax.com; and, TransUnion, 800-916-8800 - www.transunion.com Or, you can visit: www.annualcreditreport.com for more information on how to obtain a free credit report.
If you find any questionable charges on your credit report, immediately contact the financial institution or credit card company that processed the transaction to review the charge. Again, use the telephone number on the back of your credit card or credit union statement to contact the appropriate financial institution.
You also can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at toll free: 877-438-4338; www.consumer.gov/idtheft; and, with local law enforcement or the US Postal Inspector. We encourage you to do this since fewer than 60% of identity theft victims do not notify law enforcement of the crime against them.
Finally, we strongly recommend that you shred all outdated financial documents before throwing them in the trash. This includes tax documents, credit card statements, credit union statements, old checks, and expired credit cards.
Remember, the key to protecting your identity is to make it very difficult for thieves to steal it!
For more information, please visit North Island Credit Union's Center at www.myisland.com