If you want to know how to prevent your identity from being stolen, look to the person who spends five days a week working to fix the damage left behind after someone’s identity is compromised or stolen.
We recently talked to LibertyID’s lead restoration specialist Suzanne Ford who shared her recommendations on how to prevent identity theft. Ford has been helping identity theft victims for nearly 35 years and talks to folks every day, learning the circumstances that led to their demise.
- Buy a lockable mailbox or use a Post Office box to receive your mail instead. “Anyone with an unsecured mailbox might as well leave their purse on the curb,” says Ford. She’s helped enough clients who had mail theft play a part in their identity theft case that she recommends clients purchase a lockable mailbox, available for around $80 at some of the big box stores. And don’t worry, you don’t have to give your postman a key (which is actually against U.S. Postal Service regulations). Your mailman simply slides your mail into a slot. Which leads us to the next piece of advice:
- Go paperless. In addition to using a lockable mailbox, if your bank, credit card company, utility company offers to provide electronic copies of your statements or bills rather than mailing them to you, do yourself a favor and take them up on the offer. This, in turn, leads us to No. 3:
- Don’t write checks. Set up an automatic payment instead. Ford hasn’t written checks to pay her bills in more than two decades, she said. “All someone needs to do is take a picture of your check and they can use the numbers to make payments by phone,” she said. “Or (criminals) can steal a check from your mailbox, wash it and use it. I have people say ‘well, I’ve always written checks for my bills.’ That might be, but it’s time to think about how to make things more efficient and secure.”
- Secure your home and personal information. Be careful who you allow in your home, where there’s free access to your personal information. Even family and, in some cases, especially family. The insider risk with identity theft is well documented. Sadly, even parents have victimized their own children. Ford recalls helping an older woman whose niece stole two boxes of checks from her home when she came to visit and immediately started using them. The thief had a drug addiction and at the time, no one in the family had held her accountable for her behavior. The elderly woman pressed charges against her niece, who eventually went to jail for it. The courts let her out so she could take care of her five children but the woman turned around and used more of the stolen checks to pay court fees and was soon back in jail. “That’s how bold some of these criminals are,” Ford said.
- Be careful where you slide your credit card. Typically Ford refuses to swipe her card at a terminal that isn’t manned by a real person because of the likelihood that the payment terminal has been compromised by a skimming device. She shares her own experience using a movie-rental kiosk around Christmas this year when some friends came to visit: “As I was swiping my card at the box I said aloud to my friend: ‘Here’s a breach. I’ll have a mink coat tomorrow and not even know it.’” Sure enough, the next morning there were two other charges pending from some other entity. Within 24 hours Ford had a new credit card card at her door, but lesson learned: “If you’re using your card at an unsupervised device, you should just expect that something is going to happen,” she said. “The criminals love to go put them on the ATMs right outside banks because people feel safe if they’re at their bank. If you really need to have cash, go inside and get it.”
- Consider a credit freeze to prevent identity theft/fraud. While this might sound a bit over the top, really it’s not. In fact, Ford believes it should be the status quo. Until then “anyone with an established credit report should keep them locked,” Ford said. “It should not be accessible to anyone without your permission.” Here’s how you can freeze your credit.
While there are things you can do to lessen your risk of identity theft, it’s an unfortunate reality for so many folks. Just as you can do all the maintenance stuff your car dealership/mechanic recommends and still risk getting in a wreck, so to identity theft is a sad reality for more and more Americans. And Ford and her fellow teammates are just the people you’d want working diligently to fix your identity should it be stolen.
Are you covered for identity theft?