No one can steal what makes each of us unique. Maybe we collect Star Wars memorabilia, or drink iced coffee all year, or keep our heat turned off until November 1, just because, well, that’s what we do.
All of these personality traits make us the people we are and no one can take them away.
But other things we have – our financial records, our Social Security-issued identification, our credit cards – can be taken by identity thieves.
These criminals steal something even more valuable: Our peace of mind.
Trending methods of identity theft
The national justice bureau explains that cyber criminals use these kinds of incidents to commit a crime: unauthorized or attempted use of an existing account, unauthorized use or attempted use of personal information to open a new account, and misuse of personal information for a fraudulent purpose.
Here are five ways they do that. Experts say these trends will continue to grow in 2017.
- They go “phishing.’’
Phishing is described as using emails, websites and phone calls to steal money. Cyber criminals can do this by putting software on computers that steals personal information, or they may outright steal that information. In short, your information provides the “bait’’ that allows them to land your money.
- They file fraudulent tax returns.
With the use of your name, address and Social Security number, criminals file millions of fraudulent tax returns early each tax season, before the person who actually earned the money has the chance to file, according to RTI International, which studied the issue in connection with Homeland Security, the FBI, the US Army and other agencies.
- They use your medical card.
The information on a single medical card is 40 times more valuable than a stolen Social Security number on the black market, RTI reports. This scam can literally be dangerous: As an increasing amount of erroneous medical information sneaks into legitimate medical records because of identity theft, a patient could face serious, even fatal, consequences.
- They target vulnerable groups.
Online gaming sites, where many children spend much of their lives, enjoying themselves and oblivious to potential dangers, have become prime targets for identity thefts.
- They “wash’’ your check.
When cyber criminals get their hands on your check, they can use a dirty process called “check washing’’ to remove the payee information and the dollar amount. Tools are available for these thieves to make the changes undetectable. Once the new information is made, your signature remains and you suddenly owe a lot more money than you planned to someone you hadn’t planned to pay in the first place.
Reduce your risk
It sounds frightening, and it is. But there are ways to reduce your risks, and they are all pretty low-tech.
- Buy a locking mailbox or have a post office box.
These keep your mail secure and out of the reach of thieves. Don’t leave outgoing mail for the letter carrier. Some mail boxes have a flag that indicates there is mail inside; that can be a red flag for criminals, said identity theft expert Carrie Kerskie.
Place your mail directly into a mailbox or hand it directly to the carrier. Remove mail promptly from your mailbox. If you’re planning to be away and can’t pick up your mail, call the U.S. Postal Office at 1-800-275-8777 or your local post office to request a vacation stop.
After opening your mail, destroy all credit card and ATM receipts. Destroy pre-approved credit card solicitations and reduce the amount you receive by calling 1-888-567-8688 or visiting optoutprescreen.com.
- Use your computer carefully.
Update security systems regularly to keep them up to date, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office advises. Do not open files from strangers or click on links from people you do not know.
Use a firewall, especially if you have a high-speed or "always on’’ Internet connection. The firewall allows you to limit uninvited access to your computer.
Use a secure browser. When you’re submitting information on the Internet, look for the “lock’’ icon on the status bar.
When using your computer in public, make sure your machine is located in a secure position so that someone walking or working nearby cannot access it. To be super secure, you can invest in a program that requires facial recognition before opening.
- Stay organized.
The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office advises consumers to keep an accurate list of all credit card and bank accounts, including the name, mailing address and telephone number of each creditor. Update this list regularly and keep it in a secure place.
- Buy a shredder.
Identity theft Carrie Kerskie says this investment is one of the easiest and most-effective ways to reduce risks of identity theft. A cross-cut or confetti shredder is best, she advises.
And use it frequently. “When deciding what I should shred, I ask myself one simple question: Would I put this document or information on a highway billboard? If not, then it goes in the shredder.’’
- Carry only the cards you need.
And carry them securely. Every card is a potential gateway to identity theft.
- Review your credit report.
This will help you more readily identify suspicious activity.
Be aware and use your heightened senses. By doing this, your identity will have a much better chance of staying where it belongs: In the safety of your possession.
Have you reviewed your credit report for accuracy? Hanscom FCU members can access their credit scores and reports at no charge. Take your first step to protecting your identity.
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