Identity theft is big business. In fact, each year billions of dollars -- that's billions, with a "b" -- are lost to identity theft, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
This cumulative figure may not mean that much to you, but if you are victimized, it can be upsetting and expensive.
That's why you'll want to defend yourself against identity theft -- and the best time to take action is before it happens to you.
What can you do to protect yourself? Here are a few suggestions:
- Secure your Social Security number. Identity thieves eagerly seek Social Security numbers -- so don't give out yours to anyone who asks for it. In fact, as a general rule, be reluctant to give it out at all.
Always ask whomever you're dealing with if he or she will accept another form of identification, or at the very least will take just the last four digits of your number. And never carry your Social Security card with you.
- Shred credit card offers and bank statements. If you're not going to apply for the credit cards offered to you, shred the offers.
Identity thieves have been known to rifle through garbage and take advantage of credit card offers. At the same time, shred your bank and brokerage statements -- and any other statements containing personal or financial information.
- Study your credit card and checking account statements. Question any credit card charge or checking account activity you don't recognize as your own.
- Don't give out your credit card number unless you're initiating a purchase.
Most of us do at least some shopping online. As long as you're dealing with a reputable merchant who uses a secure site -- i.e., one that has "https" in the Web address -- you should be reasonably confident that your credit card information will be protected.
Never give out your credit card number to people or businesses that, unsolicited, try to sell you something over the phone or Internet.
- Opt out of credit card offers and other mailings.
You can eliminate many of those "preapproved" credit card offers by calling 1-888-5OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688) and following the prompts.
You can also greatly reduce the amount of advertising, catalogs and other mailings you receive by going on the Direct Marketing Association's Web site (www.dmachoice.org) and following the "Remove My Name From Those Lists" link.
Even after taking these steps, you could still run into identity theft. That's why you need to be alert for certain signs, such as the arrival of unexpected credit cards or account statements, denials of credit for no apparent reason, or calls or letters regarding purchases you didn't make.
If you experience any of these, you may want to place a "fraud alert" on your credit reports and review them carefully.
To place a fraud alert, contact one of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies: Equifax, (800) 525-6285; Experian, (888) 397-3742; or TransUnion, (800) 680-7289.
It's unfortunate that identity theft is part of our modern world. But by taking the proper precautions and staying alert, you can help avoid becoming a statistic.
Ross Hage is a licensed financial adviser with the firm of Edward Jones. For more information, call him at (928) 468-2281.