Helpful hints for preventing identity theft

01/10/2014 12:00 AM

01/09/2014 5:45 PM

It’s easy to spend all your money during the holidays. But most of us don’t.

Now that the holidays have passed, what happens if you arrive at the check-out counter and realize you have no cash in your account?

You could be a victim of identity theft. It could be someone pretending to be you. That’s what makes identity theft so frightening. Someone can swindle your information right from under your nose and use it to steal from you. Your money could be here today and gone tomorrow.

Like millions of others, I had shopped at Target a few times in the two weeks since Black Friday and I used my debit card. I didn’t expect any problems. Having shopped there many times before, the thought of having problems didn’t cross my mind. But then I saw the news of the data breach at Target.

I worried that I was one of the 40 million whose information was compromised. Fortunately, there was no fraudulent activity on my bank account. But I didn’t want to take any chances. I changed my debit card PIN and online password right away.

Identity theft affects about 7 percent of Americans each year. Identity thieves stole $24.7 billion in 2012. California also has the third-highest rate of identity theft in the nation. Only a small percentage of identity thieves are brought to justice.

We can’t allow ourselves to be immobilized by fear of identity theft. We can carry on, doing business as usual, as long as we take certain steps to keep our personal information personal.

Beware of phishing: Phishing is when thieves use electronic communications such as email to swindle personal information. Don’t answer these emails or click on any of the links they might contain. Banks, credit card companies or any other reputable business won’t request your info in an email.

Anyone calling you to inform you that you have won a “sweepstakes” or that they’re from an unknown bank with a transfer for your account isn’t who they say they are. That’s why you must not give out your personal information over the phone. You can’t win a sweepstakes you didn’t enter, and the real company always shows up with cameras. No bank will ever call you and ask for your information over the phone. So just hang up.

Check your bank account frequently: You should do that to monitor your spending habits anyway. But it will let you know quickly if your accounts have been compromised. Report any unauthorized activity to your bank at once.

Protect your digits: Destroy any documents with personal information before you throw them away. Make sure no one can steal your data from the trash can. Shred the documents, soak them or rip them apart. Examples of such documents include credit card applications and life insurance policies. And protect your credit and debit card numbers, too. If your cards are lost, stolen or otherwise compromised, call your credit card company immediately. They will replace your cards right away. The thieves will end up with useless cards.

You can also change your debit card PIN if you need to.

Use cash: There’s nothing for thieves to steal electronically. You will also never spend more than you have. Cash is still king.

It will help us all if law enforcement is able to to stop identity thieves. But the crooks are way ahead in this game. So we must play a part in securing our financial future. It boils down to being careful. By doing so, we can force identity thieves to find an honest line of work.

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