The following article is the first interview in a series between Jessica Walker who rites Safer in the City for SaferDates.com and Linda Criddle. SaferDates will be running interview segments twice a week on their site or the next few weeks.
Jessica: What should our members do to prevent their identity and or financial information (i.e. credit cards, account numbers) from being stolen on or offline?
Linda: A few key steps can make a real difference in protecting your identity and financial information.
Consider what information about you is online – Search to find the total set of information that you – and others – have shared about you online. What have you posted, friends posted, family members, employers, schools, groups, associations, clubs, teams, and church groups, posted? If you donate to charities, do their sites place your name and amount of donation on their sites? Have you ever posted a resume? (There is nothing wrong in posting resumes, but restrict contact and address information until you’re actually interviewing, and TAKE IT DOWN when you’ve landed the job!). Check online county records; if you own property find out how much information is available on you and your property – I’ve seen cases where in addition to the basic information, the registrar’s office also displays information about floor plans, and loan papers – which include the name of the lending institution, the loan number, and people’s SSN’s and signatures. Look to see if they show power of attorney documents, what information is available on your birth certificate, and of any children’s birth certificates. If previously married and divorced what information can be gleaned from these records? Once you have a firm understanding of your footprint of possible exposure, work to remove, or have removed, any information that you don’t feel is appropriate. Discuss with others where your privacy boundaries are so that they do not over-share about you, and ask others for their boundaries so you can be respectful of their safety and privacy needs as well.
Secure your computer. If your computer isn’t protected from viruses and other malware your financial information, your passwords, and everything else you store on your computer or do online will be abused. This concept is so basic, yet only 20% of the US population adequately protects their computers. If the cost of security software is prohibitive, use one of the excellent free services.
Use strong passwords. Passwords do not have to be hard to remember, just hard to guess. Never use information about yourself as a password. They need to be long (8 or more characters) and use uppercase, lowercase, numbers and symbols. This isn’t hard to do. For example text messaging short-codes can really help make this easy – 2BorNot2B? (To be or not to be, that is the question) or MaybeL8r (maybe later).
Check your credit history and freeze your credit. I’d guess that less than 10% of people consistently check their credit histories to ensure nothing is damaging their credit scores. By law, you have the right to three FREE reports each year. You may choose to pay to have a company monitor your credit for you, but unless you’ve had real trouble with ID theft in the past this is probably not a necessary expense. If you are not actively seeking a line of credit now or in the next month, freeze your credit. This is one of the simplest things you can do, but a step that few actually take. This blocks anyone from taking out a loan or opening a new credit card in your name. It’s easy to do – contact one of the credit bureaus – and is either free or low cost depending on their criteria.
Only purchase from reputable online stores. The price may be cheaper at a store with no reputation, but you don’t want to gamble with your financial information. To find out if a store has a good reputation, the Better Business Bureau has an online site where you should be able to look up this information. Keep all purchase confirmation emails in case you need to dispute something.
Beware of scams. Far too many people ‘give’ away their information to criminals by falling for scams in email and on the web. NEVER use a link provided to you to get to a site, find the URL yourself. You want to be in the drivers seat when going to sites online – that way you end up where you intended to, not on a clever fake site.
Physical world requirements. In addition to the safety steps above, physical items need additional protections. Shred financial documents; far too many people are careless with financial materials yet more ID theft is still carried out the good old dumpster diving way. Protect your possessions like your wallet and purse because a significant amount of ID theft is done by someone the victim knows, including parents, siblings, children and close friends.