Saturday, November 14, 2009

How To Avoid Identity Theft

A friend's recent experience with identity theft is a good reminder for us all to be more careful with what we share both online and off. Something that I find quite alarming is the detail people share on sites like Facebook, such as full birth dates.  You can set FB so that it only shows your month and day and not year in the privacy settings.  Of course, it's better not to display this at all.  Moreover, with other sites like LinkedIn, the online business contact/sharing site, identity thieves can gain new victims by piecing together information they glean from this site.  For example, finding out where someone went to school is a great start for them to pose as a potential employer and try to data mine your file from your school by calling them.  Other information, such as 'hometown" is a dead give away.

Even giving out your last 4 digits of your SS# is a problem. I hate to do it but it does process business transactions more expeditiously.  Unfortunately, Uncle Sam's number can be fairly easily hacked, too. Using the last 4 digits of one's Social Security number and finding out where one was born practically gives it away.

In my friend's case, it seems that someone overseas got a hold of his debit card number and charged a modest amount, about $10. Most people, if they do not check their balances regularly, probably would not have noticed such a relatively minor amount.  However, what is happening on the other end is that some unscrupulous people are testing your account to see if the transaction goes through.  He was lucky that his bank caught some suspicious activity and reported it to him. If his bank, nor he, had not noticed it, the thieves might have become more aggressive and either more frequently utilized his account number for small transactions, or just have gone for a "what the heck we will try a big one" and see if it takes.

One other area that is worth keeping an eye on is when you dine out.  Restaurants and credit/debit card processing companies *may* still list your complete account number on your receipt.  If they do, take a pen and black it out.  In the DC area not too long ago, there was an ID theft ring that was being operated out of a few popular restaurants.  While in this case they were using a credit card skimmer, the point is your favorite local restaurant might be a haven for criminals.

The obvious lesson is to check all of your accounts frequently, daily is not unreasonable, especially if you own a business, and report anything that looks odd as soon as you can. While you will not necessarily be on the hook for the purchases, each card issuer's policies may vary, so it is a good idea to know what they are. You can read Visa's, MasterCard’s, Discover's, and American Express' fraud policies here, here, here, and here.

Bottom line: stay safe. You can also learn about this growing crime by visiting the following site.