In today's increasingly fast-paced world, we as consumers essentially have everything we need at our fingertips. If we can't find something we need in a local store, we can find it online and even buy it within seconds. The downside to this easy, immediate information exchange is a growing concern for identity fraud. That's why whether you are online or out and about, it's critical that you proactively protect your financial information.
Although "identity fraud" and "identity theft" are often used interchangeably, they are not quite one and the same. When thieves use your personal information to transact in your name--whether it's shopping online, opening accounts or applying for loans--they have committed identity fraud. When criminals fraudulently obtain your identifying information, such as your name, Social Security number or date of birth, they have committed identity theft. They literally become you.
The bottom line? Protect your personal information. Last year in America alone we saw more than 12.6 million reported cases of identity fraud, resulting in a net loss of $20 billion. That's big business for identity thieves. They are motivated to steal your information, so you must be motivated to keep it from them.
One notable case of identity fraud happened when a man hacked into the PlayStation Network and stole information from everyone whose credit card information was stored on the network. This incident took three months to resolve--and countless headaches for all involved.
But not all instances of identity fraud involve complicated remote hacking into a corporate computer system. Even if you don't use the Internet, you are not immune to identity fraud. The majority of identity fraud and theft cases are still paper based. Thieves simply copy down your credit card information by eavesdropping at the point of purchase, stealing your wallet or purse to get credit and debit cards, even "dumpster diving" through your trash to get account information.
Identity thieves are adaptable, always looking for new ways to steal. These savvy con artists can rely on popular dating sites, online auctions sites and social media to skim for victims. Every ad, post, message or interaction is another opportunity for them to engage you in a conversation and try to sweet-talk you into giving out your personal information. That's why it's always important to be cautious, even on these so-called "trusted" sites.
Like many people, you may be convinced that you are already being very careful with your personal information. But as times change, so does the level of execution by the criminal mastermind. You need to up your game. The harsh reality is that none of us is truly safe. There are, however, many steps you can take to protect yourself to the fullest degree possible:
- Never give out personal information to someone you don't know and trust--whether it's online, in person or over the phone.
- Only carry one debit or credit card with you. If you have other cards, lock them in a safe place and only use them when needed.
- Never carry your Social Security card on your person.
- Don't write down any Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) to carry with you in your wallet and purse. Keep them in a safe, secure place at home.
- Shred any financial statements or other account information you receive at your residence.
- Consider receiving your statements electronically rather than by mail. Financial institutions like United Consumers Credit Union encrypt these statements and apply safeguards to make it harder for criminals to gain access.
- When online, look for "https" in the address bar. The "s" designates that you are on a secure website.
- If you pay your bills by mail, don't just leave outgoing envelopes in the mailbox. Rather, drop them into a secure postal box.
- Check your financial accounts closely and verify each transaction weekly, bi-weekly, or at the very least, monthly.
- Review your credit report once a year and double-check that the accounts listed as open are actually yours.
Following these simple steps and keeping a vigilant eye on your personal information could prevent you from becoming another statistic.
Despite your best efforts, should you become a victim of identity fraud, be sure to contact your financial institution or credit card issuer immediately. For a complete checklist of what do to in this situation, visit https://www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs17a.htm.
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