If you've ever been a victim of Identity Theft, you probably didn't find the cartoon all that funny. The total amount of losses has piled up to 56.6 BILLION DOLLARS, with an average loss per victim of $6,383. Identity theft affects 9 million Americans each year.
Here are some of the ways theives steal your information:
Skimming. Skimming can happen while you're paying for gas at the gas pump, when you're withdrawing money from the ATM or even when you're using your credit card to pay for dinner. Skimming is the act of illegally capturing information from your credit/debit card. Crooks install special equipment called skimmers that are not visible to the eye. The skimmers make two copies of your credit card information, one for your bank and one for them.
Social Networking. Social networking sites allow us to catch up with friends and family, but they also allow too much information to be available to others. Details such as age, hometown, employer and personal favorites can be used against you. Pretexters (someone who gets your personal information under false pretenses) may call you, claiming to be from an organization you trust and ask for important personal data such as your birthday (if it isn't already listed in your profile) or social security number.
Family and Friends. Sad, but true. Friends and family commit nearly half of all identity crimes. Co-workers, roommates, disgruntled relatives. So never leave your checkbook or wallet laying around and check your credit card statements carefully and credit reports at least twice a year.
Dumpster Diving. Every year, each of us throws away 175 pounds of paper - and much of that includes personal information thieves can use to steal your identity. Credit card offers, bank account numbers and even just your name and address are clues thieves can use to help unlock your identity.
Phishing. Phishing is when you get an e-mail from a supposedly trustworthy source, such as your bank or Pay Pal, claiming a problem with your account and asking for your user name and password. When you respond, your information is stolen and your account is raided. An new twist is called smishing, where you receive a text message and are told to call a toll-free number, which is answered by a bogus interactive voice-response system that tries to fool you into providing your account number and password. Theives use random-dialing telemarking services to hit on your cell phone number in order to call you.
Small charges on your credit card. The thieves "test" your card (and your attention) by making $1-10 charges on your credit card. This may open the door for them to make larger purchases.
Membership Programs. You're buying from a large, reputable website but just before you click the "confirm" button on your purchase, you see a pop-up window or banner ad with an offer such as "$10 Cash Back on Your Next Purchase!" By accepting that so-called deal, you're agreeing to enroll in a Web discount program that's run by a completely separate company. Those programs often provide a 30-day trial period during which you get discounts on a variety of merchandise and services. After that, a monthly membership fee, usually $10-20, will appear on your credit card bill - even though you never gave that outside company your credit card number.
Pick Your Pocket. This is the oldest method out there - and still used effectively. It only takes a moment for a thief to stick their hand in your purse or pocket - and you aren't even aware of it. Distractions are especially helpful for thieves, who then usually go directly to another store and start using your credit cards before they're discovered missing.
Here are some tips on how to protect yourself:
- Never use an ATM that you are not familiar with or not comfortable with. If it doesn't seem right, go find another one. Always use the same ATM machine(s) if possible, so you're more likely to notice if anything is different about it.
- Don't post private information on the internet. If you want to post your birthday, don't post the year. Don't post any information that you've ever used as security question answers.
- Keep all your financial information put away, even at home.
- Use a cross-cut shredder for any trash that has your personal information on it. Any account numbers, invitation codes or other information should not be just thrown out.
- If you get a text alert about an account, don't respond before you verify its legitimacy. Reverse look-up the phone number or call the customer service number listed on your statement.
- Carefully check every charge on your credit card and bank statement each month. Even better, set aside some time every week to check them online. If you see something that you don't recognize, call the bank. Credit card companies offer some protection and give you some leeway on the time, but debit cards only give you 24 hours to report problems and may make you responsible for up to $500.
- Be wary of pop-up windows or banner ads that promise an additional discount before you complete an online transaction. If you do choose to accept, read the fine print. Check your statements every month and look into any unrecognized charges.
Here are some resources for more information:
- Federal Trade Commission - The FTC's site has lots of fact sheets that tell you what to do if you've been scammed. Under the Consumer Protection tab, click on "Consumer Information." There are also tips on what to do if you're billed for merchandise you never received.
- SafeShopping.org - This site is sponsored byt he American Bar Association and has advice on safe payment methods, protecting your privacy when you shop and other topics.
- OnGuardOnline.gov - This site has tips on internet shopping and is sponsored by government agencies. Quizzes test your knowledge of spyware, online auctions, ID theft and more.
- Antiphishing.org - the Anti-Phishing Working Group, an industry-sponsored association, has a tip sheet on how to avoid being scammed. Click on "Consumer Advice" then "How to Avoid Phishing Scams."