About 11.1 million Americans were affected by identity theft in 2009. That's an increase of 37% since 2007, according to the Better Business Bureau, with the loss of nearly $54 million.
The Better Business Bureau serving Eastern North Carolina offers ten ways consumers can fight identity theft.
1. Shred all important financial documents.
Make sure you cross-shred all documents that may have any personal information on them. Consumers should destroy anything with credit card or bank account numbers, and make sure thieves find no trace of social security numbers in their trashcans. Shredding receipts for credit or ATM card transactions is also a good precaution to take. Consumers can also go a step further and shred all mail that has their name and address on it.
2. Mail bills from a secured mailbox.
Although it may be convenient to simply place mail in a home mailbox, that may unintentionally alert thieves to easy access of bank or credit account numbers. Instead, drop mail off at the post office where it will be safely locked inside a mailbox before pickup. Consumers may also want to consider getting a lock for their mailbox to protect all incoming bills from identity thieves. Renting a P.O. Box is another good option to deter thieves.
3. Reduce your junk mail and unsolicited credit card offers.
Stopping (or significantly reducing) the amount of junk mail consumers receive could wind up saving them from major heartache and frustration. Consumers can visit the Consumer Credit Reporting Companies’ opt out website at: http://www.optoutprescreen.com or call them at 888.567.8688.
4. Don't carry your social security number with you, and don’t use it as a user ID or password.
5. Always know where your credit card is—even in restaurants and retail stores.
Although not having to carry cash is convenient, using a credit card in venues where you cannot always see the person running the card might be putting consumers at risk. Some unscrupulous waiters use skimming to process payments, and identity thieves sometimes sit in parking lots trying to access financial information from restaurants and stores that use wireless systems. If possible, keep the card within your line of sight. When that isn’t possible, you may want to consider paying with cash.
6. See if your credit card company offers any free safety features for online shopping.
Although many online retail outlets promise "secure" shopping on their sites, you can never be too safe. Some financial institutions offer built in features to protect consumers and their money from becoming vulnerable. For instance, Bank of America offers the free "Shop Safe" feature, which allows credit account holders to log on and receive a temporary account number (good for one online transaction) every time they shop. That way, if an account number is ever stolen from the vendor it's a dead number and the actual bank account won't be charged.
7. Monitor credit card bills and bank statements carefully each month.
Read monthly credit card statements thoroughly to ensure accuracy of the amounts spent and the merchant, as well as to detect possible identity theft. Any unfamiliar purchases should be brought to the attention of the credit card company quickly if there is a belief that the card has been the subject of misuse. Make sure to pay special attention to bills and statements that come just after a vacation, as account information is more easily stolen when people travel.
8. Request your free credit report each year.
Many identity thieves specialize in stealing personal information and opening new credit accounts instead of simply making fraudulent charges to an existing account. As a result, it is extremely important that consumers monitor their credit report. To obtain a free credit report, simply visit www.annualcreditreport.com. (Consumers can receive one report each year from each of the major credit agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). BBB recommends consumers request one credit report from one agency every four months, to monitor their credit report throughout the year.
9. Use strong passwords and change them often.
In order to protect yourself, make sure that your passwords and pin codes for all financial institutions aren't obvious to someone who may know you. Birthdays, anniversaries and nicknames, although easy to remember, aren't very strong. If you must write your passwords and pin codes down, don’t leave them in your desk at work. If possible, try not to use the same passwords and pin codes for all accounts and change them every three months for an extra measure of security.
10. Beware of online "friends" who may really be identity thieves in disguise.
Internet chat rooms, online dating sites and teen-friendly sites like Facebook or MySpace might be making families more vulnerable to identity theft than they think. Educate children about identity theft so they don’t unintentionally pass along personal information to someone who may be posing as a friend. Also, regularly check your children's profile pages to make sure addresses and phone numbers aren’t being released to the public.