Identity Theft and How to Protect Yourself

Have you ever not been who you think you are? If you have ever been the victim of an identity thief, you have! What is identify theft? Identity theft is the deliberate use of someone else’s identity, usually as a method to gain a financial advantage or obtain credit and other benefits in the other person’s name, and perhaps to the other person’s disadvantage or loss. Identity theft can happen to anyone, and it can be devastating to your wallet and your credit, if you don’t know what to do about it. Identity theft is a big deal, and it happens every day around the world.

Most of us know to keep a close eye on our wallets or purses when traveling, but sometimes your identity can be stolen by someone right in your own neighborhood, and you might not realize it until bills for purchases you never made start showing up in your mail or online accounts.

Identity theft is also known as identity fraud, which means essentially the same thing; identity theft and identity fraud are terms used to refer to all types of crime in which someone wrongfully obtains and uses another person’s personal data in some way that involves fraud or deception, typically for economic gain. There have been recorded cases of criminals applying for and receiving credit cards, personal loans, even home mortgages using stolen identities.

You may be wondering what are the most common ways that these identity crimes can happen to you. Here are a few examples to watch out for:

In person. There is a term known as “shoulder surfing” which describes watching you from a nearby location as you punch in your credit card number (like at the grocery checkout line or at a kiosk) or listening in on a phone conversation where you give out your credit card number.

Through the mail. Have you ever received an application for a “pre-approved” credit card in the mail? Hopefully you did not throw it away without tearing up the enclosed materials. This is one way a criminal can steal your identity; by retrieving it and activating the card using an attached phone number. You may never know, especially if your mail is delivered to a place where others have easy access to it. An identity thief can intercept your mail and redirect it to another address.

Via email. If you don’t recognize an email sender you may not want to open the email, and it is also not a good idea to respond to spam email promising benefits that require you to offer up some form of identifying data.

Using electronic devices. There are electronic devices known as magnetic strip readers or skimmers that can be attached to gas pumps and automated bank teller machines. These devices record personal information when you access the service offered, and often appear to be a legitimate part of the machine. In reality, criminals use these to collect and retrieve your passwords and/or personal identification numbers, and use a duplicate card to access your personal accounts.

How can you avoid identity theft? The simple answer is, be diligent with your personal information. Avoid giving out bank account, credit card, password, or personal identification information to anyone you do not do business with on a regular basis, or in any situation that just does not feel right. When you are using public machines such as ATMs or self-checkout registers, block the view of the keypad with your body or cover it with your free hand to prevent anyone else from seeing which numbers you enter. Double check the gas pump, even if you use the same gas station all the time, and be sure there are no new “attachments”. If you see something suspicious, inform the attendant immediately.

Remember to destroy the contents of any “pre-approved” credit card applications you get in the mail, and do not carry your social security card or passwords that are written down in your wallet. Safeguard your personal information at home, as well. Purchasing a small personal safe can be a moderate expense that could save you a lot of money should your identity be compromised.