Whenever there’s a lot of fear, there also seems to be a lot of misinformation, and sometimes good information mixed in with bad. This is certainly the case with identity theft, which now, according to a 2007 survey of the Federal Trade Commission, counts some 8 million people a year as victims. So what can you do?
First, never have your Social Security number printed on your checks; this puts too much information about you into circulation. If you want to be extra cautious about your privacy, don’t use your first name on the checks (use your first initial instead) and for the address, either use your work address or a P.O. Box rather than your home address.
Of course, you shouldn’t give out your Social Security information just because a plausible-looking e-mail has asked for it; banks and credit card companies don’t request confirmation of your account information by unsecure e-mail. Don’t give this information out over the phone to strangers. Also: shred documents that contain personal information like your name, birth date, and/or social security number or black out sensitive information using one of the ink stamps made for this purpose before discarding.
Make a copy of the contents of your wallet–both sides of each license and credit card, so if your wallet or purse is stolen, you’ll have the account numbers and phone numbers to call and cancel. Keep the photocopy in a safe place. You should also carry a photocopy of your passport when traveling abroad.
If your wallet or purse IS stolen, report the credit cards as stolen immediately, and file a police report as soon as possible. It proves to credit providers that you were diligent about protecting them as well as you.
Finally, if your identity is stolen in any way, there’s a way to find out if the thieves have tried (or succeeded) to open up a credit line using your name, or are using your credit cards to make unauthorized purchases. There are three credit reporting agencies–Experian, TransUnion and Equifax–and they are required to allow you to receive a copy of your current credit report for free once a year. So every four months or so, order a report. You can do this through AnnualCreditReport.com (telephone: 877-322-8228). If you do find something suspicious, place a free 90-day fraud alert with one of the credit reporting bureaus; by law, they are required to alert the others.
Should you buy identity theft protection? Unfortunately, the coverage won’t reimburse you for money that is stolen from you, although some will pay for lost wages and legal fees but the burden of dealing with creditors will still fall on you, because the creditors are reluctant to deal with anybody acting on your behalf. Your homeowner’s insurance policy may also provide identity theft protection, but this is not a standard part of the coverage.
Credit monitoring services certainly can be an added layer of protection, to help detect and correct issues early on. In the end, there is no magic shield that will stop identity theft, but you can certainly make it harder for a thief to steal your identity by protecting your personal information at every opportunity.
Gifts From The Hands and The Heart
The holiday season is upon us and by the time you’re reading this you (hopefully) have completed most of the shopping, wrapping, shipping, etc. that consumes us this time of year. And even better if you planned ahead of time, made lists, didn’t duplicate things you already had on hand (such as wrapping supplies), and stayed within a budget, whatever that may be.
I have found it interesting that this year, more than any before that I can recall, I have heard from friends, family and clients too that they decided to make gifts for at least some of those on their list, instead of buying something “off the shelf”. For some, this might be an effect of the current economy, for many others though, it seems that this decision had little to do with an actual ability to spend, but a new or re-kindled desire to show their appreciation and caring in a more personal way – to share a personal skill or love, to give with greater meaning in their minds.
I began giving holiday treats from my kitchen when I was a college student on a VERY limited budget, but have continued over the decades simply because I enjoy it. No matter how hectic the days are, I get a lot of satisfaction from planning what I make, the actual baking, coming up with a nice presentation, and the act of giving itself. And I know that the recipient won’t get two of them. Painting, knitting, woodworking, baking, or offering one’s time to deliver meals to seniors – all these things can be smart spending and very meaningful in this season, and year around.