Identity theft often begins with a small piece of information, and snowballs as one piece of information leads to another until identity thieves have the keys that will unlock a person’s entire financial world. Non-financial identity theft – such as medical identity theft and criminal identity theft – can be just as devastating. Identity theft is a growing problem, and the factors that allow criminals to commit identity theft exist both in the physical world and online.
Mail theft is still one of the most common ways identity thieves gain access to information. All of the information that travels through the mail, from credit card bills and offers to 401(k) statements and medical records, is at risk. An identity thief only needs to know your name, address, and account number to start assuming your identity. Things you can do to protect yourself against mail theft include using a locking mail box and keeping a bill log so you know if a bill doesn’t arrive and may have been intercepted. Any mail that is being discarded should be shredded or burned, especially pre-approved credit offers. This includes gift catalogues that offer small lines of credit, since these seemingly innocuous offers are less secure than most other types of credit, and therefore one of the easiest ways for thieves to gain a foothold on your identity.
Most instances of wallet theft involve a criminal who is looking for an easy target carrying cash, but if the contents of your wallet seem valuable, that criminal may turn your information over to another criminal – the identity thief. Most people know how to make themselves a less appealing target for muggers (don’t walk alone, don’t show your wallet, don’t dress like a tourist), but beyond that, there are several things to do to reduce your chances of identity theft if your wallet is stolen. Never carry your social security card in your wallet; your social security number is the master key to your identity. Don’t carry all of your credit cards at once, and take only the ones you plan on using. Keep a list in a secure place at home or in a bank lockbox of all your financial institutions and contact numbers if you ever do need to report a lost card.
Irregular Credit Monitoring
If a sophisticated criminal gains access to your entire identity with your social security number, they can view your credit report and see if you or identity theft protection services you have hired have been making regular inquiries into your credit. Criminals who see that you have not been keeping tabs on your credit report may be more likely to assume your entire identity and use it for other purposes, such as running up medical bills in addition to applying for new credit cards or loans. Always check your credit report at least quarterly, and keep tabs on your credit score.
Unsafe browsing and downloading practices can damage your computer and your credit history. Spyware, viruses, and other malware used for illegal purposes is often referred to under the umbrella of crimeware, and numerous studies have found that over 90% of computers have at least one crimeware infection. Standard anti-virus programs are effective against most viruses, but do little to prevent spyware such as keystroke logging software that can record all of your usernames and passwords for criminals to use. In order to be fully protected, users should be extremely careful about what software programs they download and which websites they visit. It’s also important to keep several anti-virus and anti-spyware programs updated and running.
Most people have taken steps to limit what individuals and companies can find out about their lives on social networking sites, but there are still ways for determined thieves to get access to your social networking page. One common ploy identity thieves use is to contact a victim claiming to be a past colleague or former schoolmate. Victims, embarrassed that they don’t remember this person, frequently will accept the thief’s networking request. From the social network, identity thieves can identity an individual’s security passwords, financial relationships, working relationships, and other personal information just from the victim’s profile. To avoid having this happen to you, never accept a networking request from someone that you don’t know, and limit the information you share on social networking sites, even to close friends.
In the end, all five of these common factors that lead to identity theft have one underlying influence: sometimes, people are too trusting. This is not to say that everyone should be a cynic, but in cases that involve personal information or risk of harm, it’s good to take a step back and consider where certain actions will lead. Identity theft can require hundreds of hours of time and thousands of dollars to resolve, and even after an identity theft case is closed, the damage to a person’s credit report and even criminal history can be lasting.