Despite the real and present dangers identity theft, Phishing and email scam attacks pose, we cannot afford to overlook measures we can take to protect our identities and credit from attacks in the real (physical) world.
Financial institutions, law enforcement agencies and attorneys recommend a number of ways you can protect against credit card theft and misuse, check fraud, and unintentional disclosure of personal information that can be used by impersonators, extortionists and other malicious or malevolent persons. Some of the recommendations you might find when visiting fraud FAQ pages of financial institutions follow:
- Don't sign the back of your credit cards. Instead, write the words "PHOTO ID REQUIRED". Carry two or more forms of photo identification to prove you are the legitimate card holder.
- Do not write your complete credit card account number on checks and don't include the entire number in correspondence (especially email). Be suspicious of anyone who insists that you disclose more than the last four (4) digits of your credit card. Your bank or any business with whom you have already shared your credit card already knows the complete number.
- Use your work phone number on your checks instead of your home phone number.
- If you have a P.O. Box, use that instead of your home address. If you do not have a PO Box, use your work address.
- Never write your social security number on a check. Be suspicious of web sites that ask for your social security number. Don't use your social security number as a user account or billing number.
- Trim your wallet to reduce your risk. Don't carry ever credit card you hold. If your wallet is stolen, you'll have fewer cards to cancel, and you may actually be able to remember all the cards that were stolen.
Consider certain measures to protect electronic copies of credit card, banking, and other personal information as well:
- Never send your complete credit card account number in electronic mail correspondence.
- Never include the complete account number in mail subject headers or message bodies. If you absolutely must send the complete account number, do so by telephone.
- If you choose to keep photocopies or scanned images of your identification and credit cards, be certain to protect these from discovery and upload by spyware or other PC attack tools. Use file encryption software to encrypt the images, burn the encrypted images on a CD/DVD for offline storage, then delete the images from your hard drive or other removable media (USB drives) you may have used.
- If you choose to store personal or credit card information on laptops and removable media, bear in mind that these can be stolen or lost. Use file or disk encryption software to encrypt all files with personal or credit card information.
- Never discard intact removable media containing personal or credit card information. Physically destroy the media: shredding CD/DVDs and smashing thumb drives renders them useless to dumpster divers.
- Never discard a PC or laptop without physically removing hard drives. Store these securely or destroy them. I personally enjoy the power tool method: drill holes in the drive or sand the surface of the platter.
Finally, recognize that you may fall victim to identity or credit card theft or fraud. Prepare for this possibility:
- Keep telephone numbers for all your credit cards handy so you know whom to call.
- File a police report immediately in the jurisdiction where your credit cards, etc., were stolen. If you don't report theft, the police can't begin an investigation. Moreover, a police report demonstrates you were diligent to creditors.
- Contact national credit reporting organizations or Social Security fraud line immediately to place a fraud alert on your name. A fraud alert notifies any company that checks your credit that your information was stolen, and they have to contact you by phone to authorize new credit. The numbers are:
- Equifax: 1-800-525-6285
- Experian: 1-888-397-3742
- Trans Union: 1-800-680-7289
- Social Security Administration (fraud line): 1-800-269-0271
One final recommendation is not directly related to theft. Routinely cancel infrequently used credit cards and resist applying for numerous cards. Destroy canceled credit cards by cutting them in small pieces, then dispose of the pieces in separate trash pickups. Many financial advisors believe having more than three credit cards (yes, three!) harms your credit rating, as mortgage and loan companies worry that you can fall into debt quickly. The total available credit across all your credit cards is a measure of how much debt you can actually run up and this can weigh heavily against you. So while you're improving your credit card and identity information security think about credit card housecleaning. The time spent now may save you days of anxiety, and may minimize your out of pocket risk. Imagine the time you will spend notifying several dozen creditors if you lost your wallet or had it stolen.