Focus on Finance: Identity theft – what to know

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By Steve Wright

Question: What exactly is “identity theft”?
Answer: Identity theft is stealing people’s personal information to defraud them. Using their personal information, criminals then make charges to a person’s credit cards or cellphone, or perhaps impersonate them for access to bank accounts and more. Identity thieves like to prey on elderly who often lack the clarity and technical sophistication of younger adults.
You can take steps to reduce your exposure to identity theft. Three major strategies to take are:
n Destroy or make inaccessible personal information. ID thieves may go through your trash or your possessions. Rip up or shred all your bank, brokerage, Social Security and other documents sent to you if you plan to throw them away. Otherwise file them in a place inaccessible to casual observers.
Consider not carrying your Social Security card or other IDs (medical and health). Instead, photocopy them with your Social Security number scratched out.
n Don’t give out information. Beware of anyone contacting you out of the blue to verify your account information. Criminals often will telephone you pretending to be a representative of a company. For this reason don’t say what companies you do business with to an unsolicited caller.
Watch out for what is called “phishing” if you’re on the Internet. Here, an email message appears to come from a legitimate looking — but fake — website requesting personal information from you. Particularly guard against notices designated “urgent” saying your account will be closed.
Avoid clicking on unsolicited pop-up ads and avoid listing your email address on public web pages.
n Keep Track of Credit and ATM Billings. Check your ATM and credit card receipts against your monthly statements. Look for any billing amount or a company that you don’t recognize. The amount doesn’t have to be large. Watch especially for recurring charges.
Call your credit card company for explanations of unknown charges. Credit card companies are very familiar with phony billings. They’ll be happy to look into it with their fraud department.
Check your credit rating once a year by going to www.annualcreditreport.com. This central site allows you to request a free credit file disclosure, commonly called a credit report, once every 12 months from each of the nationwide consumer credit reporting companies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. If you see a credit problem, contact their fraud departments.
Deal only with legitimate companies and establish affiliations with those you can trust. It’s wise to seek referrals from those you can trust.
Steve Wright is a managing member of The Wright Legacy Group.