How do you prevent identity theft? What steps can consumers take to ensure that their identity cannot be stolen easily? When identity theft takes place due to hacking of a database by a criminal, nothing much can be done by the individuals whose identities get stolen except to inform their banks and credit card issuing institutions and ask them to freeze all their accounts till the threat is entirely removed. But many individuals unwittingly lend themselves to identity theft. This article suggests a few steps that consumers can take themselves to avoid becoming a victim.
Consumers can easily fall victim to identity thieves as few people bother about personal information security. In any case, many Indian consumers are either first time users or relatively recent users of credit cards and electronic modes of payment which lend themselves easily to information leakage. Here are a few tips that should help you avoid leaking information unwittingly.
* Reduce the number of credit and debit cards you carry in your wallet. We recommend that you do not use debit cards mainly because there is almost no protection against unauthorized withdrawal. In case of credit cards, card issuing entities always monitor withdrawals so there is much greater protection. Just carry one or two credit cards and your ATM card in your wallet. Nonetheless, debit cards are popular. If you do use them, take advantage of online access to your bank account to monitor account activity frequently. Report evidence of fraud to your financial institution immediately.
* When using your credit and debit cards at restaurants and stores, pay close attention to how the magnetic stripe information is swiped by the waiter or clerk. Dishonest employees have been known to use small hand-held devices called skimmers to quickly swipe the card and then later download the account number data onto a personal computer. The thief uses the account data for Internet shopping and/or the creation of counterfeit cards.
* Do not use debit cards when shopping online. Use a credit card because you are better protected in case of fraud.
* Keep a list or photocopy of all your credit cards, debit cards, bank accounts, and investments — the account numbers, expiration dates and telephone numbers of the customer service and fraud departments — in a secure place (not your wallet or purse) so you can quickly contact these companies in case your credit cards have been stolen or accounts are being used fraudulently.
* Never give out your credit or debit card number or other personal information over the phone, by mail, or on the Internet unless you have a trusted business relationship with the company and you have initiated the call. Identity thieves have been known to call their victims with a fake story that goes something like this. “Today is your lucky day! You have been chosen by the Publishers Consolidated Sweepstakes to receive a free trip to the Bahamas. All we need is your credit card number and expiration date to verify you as the lucky winner.”
* Always take debit/credit card receipts with you. Never toss them in a public trash container. When shopping, put receipts in your wallet rather than in the shopping bag. Do the same with ATM statements and slips.
* Watch the mail when you expect a new or reissued credit card to arrive. Contact the issuer if the card does not arrive.
*Passwords and PINS:*
* When creating passwords and PINs (personal identification numbers), do not use the last four digits of your credit/debit card number, mother’s maiden name, your birthdate, middle name, pet’s name, consecutive numbers or anything else that could easily be discovered by thieves. It’s best to create passwords that combine letters and numbers.
Here’s a tip to create a password that is strong and easy to remember. Think of a favorite line of poetry, like â€œMary had a little lamb.â€ Use the first or last letters to create a password. Use numbers to make it stronger. For example, MHALL, or better yet MHA2L!. The longer the string, the harder it is to crack.
* Memorize all your passwords. Don’t record them on anything in your wallet.
* Shield your hand when using a bank ATM machine or making long distance phone calls with your phone card. “Shoulder surfers” may be nearby with binoculars or video camera.
*Internet and computer safeguards:*
* Install a firewall on your home computer to prevent hackers from obtaining personal identifying and financial data from your hard drive.
* Install and update virus protection software to prevent a worm or virus from causing your computer to send out files or other stored information.
* Password-protect files that contain sensitive personal data, such as financial account information. Create passwords that combine 6-8 numbers and letters, upper and lower case. In addition, encrypt sensitive files.
* When shopping online, do business with companies that provide transaction security protection, and that have strong privacy and security policies.
* Before disposing of your computer, remove data by using a strong â€œwipeâ€ utility program. Do not rely on the â€œdeleteâ€ function to remove files containing sensitive information.
* Never respond to “phishing” email messages. These appear to be from your bank, eBay, or PayPal. They instruct you to visit their web site, which looks just like the real thing. There, you are told to confirm your account information, provide your credit/debit card number, date of birth and other personal information. Legitimate financial companies never email their customers with such requests. These messages are the work of fraudsters attempting to obtain personal information in order to commit identity theft. For more information visit “www.antiphishing.org.”:www.antiphishing.org
* Be aware that file-sharing and file-swapping programs expose your computer to illegitimate access by hackers and fraudsters. If you use such programs, make sure you comply with the law and know what you are doing. Install and update strong firewall and virus protection.
Many peer to peer file-sharing programs such as Kaza, LimeWire etc are downloaded by youngsters without the knowledge of their parents. There are software programs available that identify file sharing software and locate shared files on home computers. For more information on safe surfing for families, visit “www.getnetwise.org.”:www.getnetwise.org
*Reducing access to your personal data:*
* To minimize the amount of information a thief can steal, do not carry extra credit cards, debit cards, birth certificate or passport in your wallet or purse, except when needed. At work, store your wallet in a safe place.
* To reduce the amount of personal information that is “out there,” take these steps:
* Sign up for the recently introduced National Do Not Call Registry. Your name is added to name deletion lists used by nationwide marketers.
* Install a locked mailbox at your residence to deter mail theft. Or use a post office box or a commercial mailbox service. When you are away from home for an extended time, have your mail held at the Post Office, or ask a trusted neighbor to pick it up.
* When ordering new cheque books, pick them up at the bank. Don’t have them mailed to your home.
*Responsible information handling:*
* Each month, carefully review your credit card, bank and phone statements, including cellular phone bills, for unauthorized use.
* Convert as much bill-paying as you can to automatic deductions from your bank account and/or credit account. Consider using the Internet for banking and paying bills. With fewer account statements and bills mailed to your home, you will reduce the risk of mail theft and identity theft.
* Do not toss pre-approved credit offers in your trash or recycling bin without first tearing them into very small pieces or shredding them with a cross-cut shredder. They can be used by “dumpster divers” to order credit cards in your name and mail them to their address. Do the same with other sensitive information like credit card receipts, phone bills, bank account statements, investment account reports, and so on. Home shredders can be purchased in many office supply stores. We recommend cross-cut shredders.
* Use a gel pen for writing cheques. Experts say that gel ink contains tiny particles of color that are trapped in the paper, making cheque washing more difficult .
* When you fill out loan or credit applications, find out how the company disposes of them. If you are not convinced that they store them in locked files and/or shred them, take your business elsewhere. Some auto dealerships, department stores, car rental agencies, and video stores have been known to be careless with customer applications. When you pay by credit card, ask the business how it stores and disposes of the forms. Avoid paying by credit card if you think the business is not careful. When paying with credit cards on the Internet, be sure the company uses secure transmission and storage methods.
* Store personal information securely in your home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help, or have service work done in your home. Use a locking file cabinet or safe.
* Any entity that handles personal information should train all its employees, from top to bottom, on responsible information-handling practices. Persuade the companies, government agencies, and nonprofit agencies with which you are associated to adopt privacy policies and conduct privacy training.