Identity Theft // November 19, 2012

A woman I work with was recently apartment-hunting and couldn’t figure out why the landlords weren’t returning her calls. Luckily one of them finally hit her up and told her why her application was denied. Now I didn’t hear their conversation myself, but I’m assuming it was due to the 10 pages of unauthorized accounts I saw her print out; none of which she knew were open in her name. Sucks, right?

Now I’m not trying to get you all paranoid, but the holidays are the perfect storm for this type of identity theft. You’re running around buying gifts and attending holiday parties, you’re distracted by all the booze stimulating conversation, and in all the hustle and bustle you don’t dispose of your statements properly…. Lo and behold, you’re spenRding the first week of the new year cleaning up your credit. I don’t mean to scare you, but I do want to give you a few practical steps to help you avoid becoming a victim of identity theft this holiday season. Here are my top 7 tips:

  1. This one is pretty straightforward, but I’m a firm believer in regularly checking your Credit Report.  You’ve got your three main bureaus: Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. You can get a free report from each bureau every 12 months. (Go to AnnualCreditReport.com or call (877) 322-8228. Note: you have to pay to get your credit score, so keep that in mind. This is a year-round tip!
  2. Set up email alerts through your bank or credit card company so you know when large transactions have been made or when your balance reaches a certain limit (this is also helpful for shopaholics). Catching weird transactions early is key in fighting them.
  3. Sign up for paperless billing. This way you don’t have to worry about your sensitive info getting swiped in the mail (or the trash, when Aunt Marge comes in town and does you a “favor” by cleaning up your desk). And it’s eco-friendly. Plus, if you monitor your accounts online you’ll catch any weird activity a lot faster. If you prefer paper bills, invest in a shredder.
  4. DO NOT carry your social security card in your wallet, but do keep your account numbers and bank contact info handy (i.e. wallet or phone) in case you ever do need to make those calls.
  5. It’s the season of party-throwing. Whether you throw a holiday party, or have a roommate with *ahem* sketchy friends, be smart! Keep your financial info in a safe place. Approximately 30-50% of identity theft happens by people the victim knows. Eek!
  6. Don’t enter sensitive information into sites that are linked in your emails. You’d be surprised by how many scams there are out there, especially during the holidays. If you receive emails—or snail mail, for that matter—asking for such information, be safe and manually type the URL in your browser, or find the company’s number and call them directly. An extra moment or two now can save you a huge headache later.
  7. Be sure to shop on secure websites and make sure you see "https" before you enter your credit card info. If a site looks sketchy, it probably is. Err on the side of caution.

You have enough on your plate this holiday season (literally); the last thing you want to do is clean up a mess caused by someone else. Use these tips and you won't have to clean up after anything but your party guests!

Published in Personal Finance