Protect yourself from identity theft or be sorry later
If you ask my husband, Facebook will bring about the end of the civilized world as we know it.
While I'm not quite so apocalyptic in my thinking, a recent experience on Facebook really opened my eyes to the value of paying attention to your privacy settings.
As the editor of three local newspapers, the line between work and home is often blurred. Many sources have my office, home and cell numbers. I've written about my life and personal experiences in columns.
On Facebook, I wasn't concerned about others seeing my list of friends. Then, I got a phone call from my friend Felicia telling me someone had contacted her pretending to be me.
The person created a fake Facebook account in my name and used my visible list of friends to send everyone friend requests. Once the owner of the fake account friended my friends, he or she began contacting them via the Facebook instant messaging system.
Apparently this person was saying I had won $150,000 from Facebook and they were "next on the list" to receive such a sum.
Although I don't think anyone actually fell for it, one person did ask "me" to give her a call and gave out her cell number. Fortunately, this friend was suspicious enough to want to talk to me directly rather than send messages through Facebook.
Felicia was even smarter. When she noticed "I" did not respond as usual to personal comments about her life, she asked "me" about my three children, knowing I have only one child. When the response showed the person wasn't up on the details of my life, she told the person to back off or she would call the police.
I did actually call the police.
I wasn't the only one who felt this was a good idea. Originally thinking the thief had also spoofed my email, I sent a message to those in my address book – particularly people with whom I don't correspond often – to let them know they should not believe anything from "me" that involved winning money or giving out personal information.
"I hope you reported this to the police," responded State Farm Insurance Agent Judith Ladonis. She was in my contacts list because she's also an East Allen Township supervisor. "It's very important you do so! You don't want criminal charges filed, then you would have to prove it wasn't you. I deal with this type of fraud and identity theft a lot. So, I appreciate the nightmare it can be. Call the police."
Another friend said she was proud of me for being sensitive and trying to head off problems for my friends. I laughed and said I appreciate her praise but I was protecting myself as much as anyone else.
I checked with my ISP and learned my email had not been compromised after all. I also checked my bank accounts and was relieved to discover no damage there either.
"It could have been a disaster," said Ladonis.
As many as 9 million Americans have their identity stolen each year, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Sometimes identity thieves are after more than your money. They steal personal information for use when committing crimes.
"I had one client who had to prove to the police all the time that it wasn't him," Ladonis said.
Ladonis offered the following tips for preventing and dealing with identity theft:
Protect your Social Security number.
"Do not carry it in your wallet," Ladonis said. "I can't jump up and down and say that enough."
The only reason anyone needs your Social Security number is to pay you.
Doctors' offices often request this information. Ladonis refuses to give it out and has told her doctor to remove it from her records.
"They don't need it," she said.
Ladonis advises shredding any and all documents with account numbers, your address, medical information and anything else you wish to protect.
A pet peeve of mine is the fact that pharmacies put your name and the name of your medication on at least four pieces of paper with every prescription. I shred them all. Why take a chance? Who says an identity thief won't deal in illegal prescription drugs and somehow tie it back to you?
"I have a shredder by every desk in my office," said Ladonis. "I think shredding really is important."
Regularly monitor your accounts.
Ladonis suggests making sure nothing is amiss with any of your financial accounts on a weekly basis.
Use credit cards instead of debit cards.
Credit cards are generally protected by the issuer so you're less likely to be liable for fraudulent purchases. Debit cards aren't.
If someone gets a hold of your debit card information, "It's just as if they'd gotten into your checking account," Ladonis said.
Likewise, never allow someone to record your credit or debit card information. Many online retailers will record this information, making it easier for you to give them repeat business. However, Ladonis said, it's just not worth it.
"I'm serious," she said. "Put [credit card information] in every time. It's really worth the extra effort.
"People think that's such a great convenience. No, don't do it. They get hacked and your information is all over."
Create strong passwords.
Passwords should be at least eight characters and include a combination of capital letters and special characters.
Avoid using birthdays, anniversaries, addresses, phone numbers and the names of children, pets or loved ones. This information is easily accessible to thieves and hackers, Ladonis said.
And don't resort to using your grandmother's maiden name either, Ladonis advised. That kind of information is also readily available on the Internet.
Report any and all problems to the police.
This is important, Ladonis said, even if the amount stolen is small or the loss is covered by the bank or credit card issuer.
If you report the theft immediately, you'll have an easier time protecting yourself. Recovering from identity theft is never easy, but it will be a little less difficult if the authorities know about it as soon as possible.
"As soon as you learn about it, or worry about it, shut it down," she said.
Sometimes they will steal personal information and not use it for several months, or even years, knowing the owner will eventually get complacent. So report it, even if it seems insignificant.
"If nothing else, let the statistics be accurate," she said.
It's especially difficult if your identity has been stolen by a family member or someone you know. It's just as important to report these situations to police.
"You don't want to ruin their life. But they're really close to ruining yours," she said.
Ladonis also advises keeping records, such as account numbers, in a safe place. If your credit card is stolen, for example, you need access to contact information in order to report the theft.
Get copies of your credit reports.
This goes hand in hand with monitoring your accounts. Know what your credit report says so you can spot something suspicious.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires each major credit bureau to provide a free annual credit report. The three major credit bureaus are:
· Equifax, www.equifax.com, 1-800-525-6285
· Experian, www.experian.com, 1-888-397-3742
· TransUnion, www.transunion.com, 1-800-680-7289
Or you can visit www.annualcreditreport.com
More information on identity theft and its prevention is available through the Federal Trade Commission. Visit www.consumer. gov/idtheft.
Johanna S. Billings