Most of my presentations in the community begin with information on identity theft and ways to prevent becoming a victim. We hear about data breaches on a regular basis these days, both with national companies and locally. Even the federal government has experienced breaches. According to the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Sentinel Network, of the 3 million complaints it received in 2015, 16 percent (490,220) were for identity theft.
Identity theft can have a very detrimental effect on our lives, so it’s wise to be vigilant. It’s not only very time consuming to straighten out the problems caused by this scam, but it’s also disconcerting and emotionally draining.
What do identity thieves look for?
Any personal information is fair game: addresses, phone numbers, birthdates, mothers’ maiden name, passwords and pins, credit and bank account numbers and, of course, the holy grail of ID theft – our social security numbers. What can these scammers do with this information? Of course, there’s the monetary aspect to all scams: they can open new accounts, apply for new credit cards in your name, change your address to receive your mail, even commit crimes. There has been a huge increase as well with medical ID theft – where a thief uses your personal and insurance information to obtain medical treatment and/or prescription drugs in your name and under your policy. Additionally, in the past few years, we have seen an increase in tax identity theft. Scammers will use your social security number to file a fraudulent tax return that will allow them to receive a refund. You won’t find out until you file your own return.
Following are suggestions for being more vigilant:
Credit reports: Check your credit report annually at www.annualcreditreportcom. Each of the credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, TransUnion) allow one free report per year. If there are unauthorized usages, be sure to dispute those charges immediately and put an alert with the credit reporting agencies. It may even be prudent to request a credit freeze which would hinder an identity thief from opening new accounts in your name. Also, when a loved one dies, be sure to request a “deceased alert” and send copies of the death certificate to the three reporting agencies as well as to banks and credit card companies. A scam called “ghosting” occurs where thieves steal the identities from victims who are deceased.
Social media: Be wary of putting any personal information on social media. Do you have your birthday on your Facebook page? (Yes, it’s wonderful to see all the “Happy Birthday” posts on your special day). Are you excited to post vacation photos while you’re still traveling? But, is there anyone at home while you’re gone? If not, your home could be ripe for a burglary. Are you posting on genealogy sites? Think about the information you are providing: your full name, date of birth, city/state where you were born, your mother’s maiden name – those are often security questions for bank accounts. And your kids’ and grandkid’s name? Fodder for the ‘Grandparent Scam.’ Also, never click on any ads you see on social media – scammers could gain access to your computers in this way. And all those fun surveys and quizzes on Facebook – don’t do them! They are tools for companies to ‘data mine’ your information.
Passwords: We all know what a hassle it is to have different passwords for each account, to remember them all, and to change them frequently. The two top passwords for the past couple of years: “123456” and “password.” You should also avoid using any sort of personal information such as your mother’s maiden name, kids’ names, your birthdate, etc. Passwords should be at least 12 characters long with a mix of letters, numbers, and symbols, upper and lower case letters. And do not put these passwords in a file on your computer labeled “passwords” (yes, people really do!). Hackers can gain access to your computer files and with the passwords, gain access to your financial and personal life!
Public Wi-Fi: Remember when all we worried about when we traveled was pickpockets snatching our wallets and passports? Or a burglar breaking into our hotel rooms to steal our valuables? These days, theft can occur without the thief being anywhere near us. Whether you are in your hotel room, at the airport, or sitting in your hometown at a local coffee house, there is often access to public Wi-Fi. But be cautious with any public internet access. Never use public Wi-Fi for any financial sites including online banking, investment or credit card websites. Be wary of using any sites where you have to enter your password – identity thieves can use “keylogging” to secretly capture your key strokes. And when you do log onto a free network at your hotel or other public place, be sure that it is the authentic one. ID thieves often set up fake networks with similar names. In general, when outside of your usual secure Wi-Fi networks, it is probably safer to use your smartphone for internet access.
Other ways to help secure your identity:
- Shred all statements and forms including utility, credit card, bank, financial, and health forms.
- Minimize the personal information you put on your checks – you can just have your first initial and last name. No driver’s license, social security, or phone number is required.
- Monitor your statements every month: bank, credit card and cell phone bills included.
- Delete any emails from banks, credit card companies or any other entities that want information or for you to click on a link. Instead, go directly to that company’s website.
- When shopping online, be sure you are on a secure website (https) before putting in your credit card information.
- Back up your computer regularly.
If you are a victim of identity theft, you can report it to the Federal Trade Commission: https://www.identitytheft.gov/.
You can report scams to Better Business Bureau at: https://www.bbb.org/scamtracker/alaskaoregonwesternwashington/reportscam
Michelle Tabler, Alaska Regional Manager
Better Business Bureau Northwest
We appreciate the wealth of knowledge in our community and strive to host guest authors from time to time who cover topics we think you will find useful. Michelle Tabler has been the Alaska Regional Manager for the Better Business Bureau Northwest since February 2013. Michelle grew up in Anchorage, obtained her Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science from the University of Santa Clara in Calif., and returned home to start her career. Michelle has more than 30 years’ experience in insurance, business development and research-based consulting.
On behalf of BBB, Michelle is working throughout the State of Alaska to continue building relationships with business owners, community organizations and consumers. Michelle does presentations state-wide to business groups and associations, seniors citizens, military personnel and families as well as high school students. Michelle also provides public relations and communication support to all Alaska media outlets on current topics and scams.
Michelle has been involved in several community organizations including Anchorage East Rotary, Anchorage Chamber of Commerce and the Alaska World Affairs Council.