Protect yourself from Identity Theft
BY LINDSAY SAUVAGEAU CHAMPION STAFF WRITER
3/10/2006 – Protect yourself
Incidents of credit card fraud and identity theft are piling up, in some cases costing consumers thousands of dollars and damaging their credit history.
It can be staggering for a consumer to see thousanddollar purchases on their credit card bill from places they have never even visited. Just as it is disturbing to note that the insidious practices of your favorite local restaurant may lead to your credit card information being recorded before you even leave your booth.
Recent incidents in Leominster, Fitchburg and Holden have rattled consumers, causing many to ask, “How do you prevent crooks from depleting your finances and invading your life?”
It is misleading to categorize identity theft as simply the unfortunate byproduct of unsafe or breached online activities. Though spyware, hackers and Trojan Horse viruses certainly pose a threat to safe consumer practices, privacy threats can come from many places.
Leominster Credit Union’s Vice President of Marketing Colleen M. Hughes and Senior Vice President of Retail Banking Carol A. Southworth described several identity theft scams which go beyond the Web.
Southworth noted one common scam where individuals drive around neighborhoods in search of mailboxes containing outgoing mail. These criminals take the mail to utilize other people’s billing and checking information. The U.S. Postal Service has put together an informational video about these scams including ways of safeguarding oneself. The video can be obtained at the post office and the public library.
One of the most common scams is referred to as “phishing.” Phishing scams involve a scam artist trying to get subjects to disclose valuable personal data: credit card numbers, passwords and account information under false pretenses. The scam can be carried out in person or over the phone, through the mail or through online spam e-mails and popup windows.
Southworth says local phishing scams have appeared in the form of lottery scams. She noted one example, which had an agency producing counterfeit Mega Millions mailers. “They looked perfectly legitimate,” she said. These mailers claimed the recipient had won a sum of money. Attached to the mailer was a check meant to cover the luxury tax of the “prize.”
Fooled by the legitimacy of the mailer, people have had their bank accounts wiped clean when they sent out their personal information and tried to deposit the counterfeit check.
Southworth, who is also Leominster Credit Union’s security officer, described several ways in which consumers can keep themselves protected from identity theft.
A person should never give out their pin numbers, social security numbers or even their name to anyone, unless they are sure they are dealing with a legitimate entity and, if making transactions over the Internet, that they are using a secured connection, she said..
“Many telephone solicitors are smart. They only ask people to reveal the last four digits of their credit card number. But that’s all the information they need,” said Southworth. “There are people who just sit and try numbers all day long until something works.
Most institutions won’t call to retrieve that kind of information, they already should have it. If a person is asking for more information than you feel comfortable releasing, hang up and call a number you know is legitimate to verify that call.”
If a person is sending any sort of information over the Internet they should make sure that the site address includes the prefix “https” where the “s” stands for “secure” and that a golden lock icon is located on the bottom right-hand corner of the browser identifying that the site is indeed being monitored.
It is always a good idea to shred documents containing personal information, such as receipts of any kind and credit card solicitations.
“Don’t just rip things into two or four pieces, a person can easily piece those back together,” adds Hughes. “You really should shred them into itsy bitsy pieces.”
Never leave ATM receipts at the counter or in the machine. Experienced hackers can use what little information is displayed on those receipts as a way of retrieving the rest. Likewise, don’t keep social security cards or pin numbers in a wallet and no one should write their social security number on a check.
Hughes and Southworth agree that it’s most important for consumers to pay attention to their credit card statements and take advantage of free credit reports. In December 2003, President Bush signed the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) giving consumers the right to obtain a free credit report every 12 months on request from any national credit bureau: Experian, Equifax or Trans Union.
“We can’t educate members enough,” says Hughes. “It is up to consumers to be checking bank statements regularly and filing credit reports.”
Here are some of the Do’s and Don’ts outlined by the Federal Trade Commission to help consumers protect themselves from credit and charge card fraud.
Sign your cards as soon as they arrive.
Carry your cards separately from your wallet, in a zippered compartment, a business card holder, or another small pouch.
Keep a record of your account numbers, their expiration dates, and the phone number and address of each company in a secure place.
Keep an eye on your card during the transaction, and get it back as quickly as possible.
Void incorrect receipts. Destroy carbons.
Save receipts to compare with billing statements.
Open bills promptly and reconcile accounts monthly, just as you would your checking account.
Report any questionable charges promptly and in writing to the card issuer.
Notify card companies in advance of a change in address. DON’T:
Lend your card(s) to anyone.
Leave cards or receipts lying around.
Sign a blank receipt. When you sign a receipt, draw a line through any blank spaces above the total.
Write your account number on a postcard or the outside of an envelope.
Give out your account number over the phone unless you’re making the call to a company you know is reputable. If you have questions about a company, check it out with your local consumer protection office or Better Business Bureau.