Identity Theft — and How to Reduce Your Risk of Exposure to It

Do not be a victim. By following as many of the steps listed below as possible, your can significantly minimize your chances of becoming a target of identity theft. Photograph ©istockphoto.com by Vid Gutenberger.

Technology can be its own dichotomy when it pertains to identity theft, as it can both reduce and increase the risk of it happening to you.

It is a huge game where the stakes are high: when someone steals your identity through a number of different methods, that person can use your information to purchase just about anything they want — and simultaneously render your life miserable for years to come as you attempt to regain your identity.

Identity theft is on the increase. For example, the Internal Revenue Service of the United States reports that it has seen a significant increase in fraud which involves identity thieves who file false claims for income tax refunds by stealing and using the Social Security number of someone else. As of January 31, 2013, the Internal Revenue Service had already launched 542 investigations concerning identity theft tax refund fraud for fiscal year 2013 — greater than half of the 898 investigations initiated for all of fiscal year 2012, and more than double the 224 investigations initiated for all of fiscal year 2010.

Of those investigations initiated since fiscal year 2010, the incarceration rate ranges from 88.9 percent all the way to 100 percent, depending on the year.

Of course, income tax fraud is only one of a myriad of forms of identity theft. I point out the income tax fraud as an egregious example of identity theft for a person who may not travel…

…and — as you can imagine — travel can exacerbate the risk of identity theft for a variety of reasons.

According to Fifth Third Bank, there were 8.1 million new victims of identity theft in the United States in 2008, with a new person falling victim to identity theft every 3.8 seconds — and the most common way to fall victim to identity theft is by having your wallet, credit card or checkbook lost or stolen.

Here are ways you can mitigate the risk of you becoming a victim of identity theft:

Use Credit Cards When You Travel — Not Debit Cards

A debit card is simply a tool used as a method of withdrawing cash directly from your bank account — similar to a check but with almost instant results — and if a thief uses your debit card, consider that money to be gone forever. For that reason alone — and I have other reasons as well — I never use debit cards, as they serve no purpose for me.

However, a credit card offers you protection by setting the maximum limit for which you could be liable — at $50.00 on some credit cards, for example — if your credit card account is compromised. Even if $5,000.00 were charged to your credit card, chances are you will not have to pay most or all of it if you successfully dispute that you were not the one who used that credit card for those fraudulent transactions.

Also, credit card accounts can be closed as a preventive measure if you suspect fraud. One telephone call will usually close down the account and an investigation will usually be launched by the credit card company. Closing down a bank account to which a debit card is tied is not as easy to accomplish — and you will most likely have already lost money before you even know that fraud is indeed occurring.

Bring Your Automated Teller Machine Card For Cash Withdrawals

You want to attempt to carry as little cash as possible when you travel, as it is nearly impossible to recover if it is lost or stolen. Ensure that you use a card issued by your bank to use in automated teller machines — or ATMs — when you travel. These cards usually require a four-digit personal identification number which you create for your protection and becomes useless to a potential thief.

Another reason for using an automated teller machine card when you travel is that it is usually less expensive to withdraw money from a bank than exchanging currency by using a currency exchange service while abroad — depending on the fees that you are charged by the bank that issued the card, of course. Sure, you can walk into the bank and exchange money for a favorable rate — if you are willing to carry cash and if the bank is open at the time you need the cash. Do your homework and figure out which is the least expensive way to procure foreign currency should you need it while traveling.

Do not use a credit card or debit card at an automated teller machine while traveling — especially if they have not been assigned a personal identification number, as thieves could use them to access money. Additionally, credit card companies consider cash withdrawals at an automated teller machine as a cash advance and will accordingly charge you significant fees. You may also be charged a currency conversion fee on top of the cash advance fee.

The downside of an automated teller machine is that a device could unknowingly be attached to the machine by thieves to skim the data off of your card — whether it is an automated teller machine card, a credit card or a debit card. That data is just like giving the thieves your card and giving them the personal identification number attached to it. Try to withdraw cash during business hours at a bank or — if that is not possible and you really need the cash — consider using the automated teller machine at a reputable bank, as their employees most likely check the machine every day to ensure its integrity has not been compromised. Besides, automated teller machines at banks are usually behind locked doors, so you can process your transactions with a certain degree of security. Nevertheless, always be aware of your surroundings — and if you notice anything that is even the least bit suspicious to you, leave the area and immediately report it to the local authorities if necessary.

Call Before Departing on Your Trip

Contact your bank and credit card companies to alert them that you are traveling, along with dates and destinations. This way, your accounts will most likely be monitored for any suspicious activity — especially if something is being purchase in Rome while you are in Singapore, for example.

Your local post office is more than happy to hold your mail for three days or more. Simply fill out a card with the dates when you do not want for your mail to be delivered and either hand it personally to your postal carrier, or go to the post office which serves your neighborhood and hand the card over to a postal service employee there. You can even choose whether you want the accumulated mail delivered to your home or pick it up yourself at the post office.

Pay your bills before you leave on your trip. This way, you will not have to worry about paying possible late fees — and you might reduce the amount of mail you receive while you are gone. Better yet, sign up for electronic bill payment — especially if there is a financial incentive to do so — but first ensure that the company or institution to which you are paying has a secure way of ensuring that your electronic payment will not be compromised. If necessary, contact the companies from who you expect bills during your trip to apprise them of your schedule — they will most likely work out a plan with you at no additional cost to you.

Give the Impression That Someone is Home in Your House

Before I leave on a trip, I always set up at least two timers to automatically turn on and off lights inside my home after dusk. Each timer has a minimum of two cycles which you can program. You can also do the same for televisions and other electronic equipment.

Alert your neighbors to watch your house, if you trust them. They can pick up your mail if for whatever reason you do not want to stop delivery of your mail by the postal service — but if they do, ask them to collect it every other day so that it is not as obvious that you are not home. Have them water your lawn, use your garbage cans and place them by the curb to be emptied by the waste removal company, and perhaps even park a vehicle in your driveway to help give the impression that someone is home while you are traveling.

Miscellaneous Identity Theft Deterrents

If you have any garbage in those aforementioned garbage cans, ensure that there is no sensitive information from which a thief can steal your identity. I believe in minimizing as much waste as possible — as an example, what I do is cut out my name and address from credit card applications and use them as return address labels for other mailings. If I have any leftover information which can be deemed sensitive and potentially threatening to having my identity stolen, I simply tear or shred that information and separate it into two or three piles to dispose of them at different times — rendering piecing the torn or shredded information back together again for thieves to use virtually impossible.

Dispose of obsolete credit cards by cutting them up into little pieces. Just because your credit card is expired or the account has been closed does not mean that a thief could not steal your identity or unsuccessfully use the credit card for nefarious purposes. Again, separate the pieces into two or three piles to dispose of them at different times…

…and consider recycling the shreds of paper or pieces of plastic which do not contain sensitive information. Hey — every little bit helps to save and preserve the environment.

This may sound silly, but a simple sign alerting would-be thieves that you have an alarm system — even if you do not have one — can be an effective deterrent whether or not you are traveling. The same can be said for a video surveillance system — even if the system is merely a fake but looks real. Lights equipped with motion sensors which automatically activate when they detect a moving being within its vicinity can be quite effective as well.

Barking dogs can also be effective — but they of course should not be left alone for extended periods of time. Then again, a sign which warns to BEWARE OF DOG in big red letters can act as a deterrent to would-be thieves as well — even if you do not have a dog.

Minimize What You Bring

I travel light — whether it comes to what is in my pockets or what is in my lone bag. Some people suggest that you compile a list of what you need to bring with you on your trip — and then actually take only half of those items with you, as there is simply no need to carry more of your belongings than you will use…

…and that includes credit cards and automated teller machine cards. In addition to a small amount of cash — perhaps $100.00, depending what I believe I might need just in case — I travel with two credit cards and one automated teller machine card. In my years of travel, I have never needed any more than that. Do not bring your checkbook, as it is more than likely that a personal check from you will not be accepted as a valid form of currency.

On the rare occasion where I know I will not be driving at all while traveling, I will not bring my driver’s license with me if I am already bringing my passport. Why carry more than I need — especially if those items which I may not use could increase my risk of identity theft, even if only minimally?

Use Your Frequent Travel Loyalty Program Luggage Tags

Do not put your address on your luggage tag. Use only your name and telephone number — especially these days where a telephone is usually not fixed to one location anymore. Why disclose more information than necessary? Do you really want potential thieves to know where you live?

If you really must insist on using an address on your luggage tags, consider using the address of where you are employed — with the permission of the company, of course.

Additionally, take a look at one of the luggage tags provided to you by your favorite frequent travel loyalty programs. Notice that there is a bar code on it. If your bag is found and turned in to an office of the airline or lodging company, they can call up your information on their computer systems, alert you that they have your bag and return it to you — or you can retrieve it.

Secure Your Sensitive Documents

I carry my credit cards, cash, government identification, keys and boarding passes — as boarding passes may contain sensitive information which could be potentially useful for thieves — in the front pockets of my pants. Never put anything in your back pocket while traveling, as that significantly increases the ease of stealing your information by a thief or pickpocket without you even knowing about it until it is way too late. You also increase the risk of simply losing what is in your back pocket. I have never had anything lost or stolen in my front pockets — ever.

If you carry a handbag, ensure that you loop the straps at least once around a body part of yours — such as the upper part of your arm — and keep the handbag within your sight at all times. This renders stealing your handbag significantly more difficult for a thief to simply snatch it right out of your hands if it is anchored to a part of your body. For this reason, do not secure the strap around your neck — for you could be choking and possibly suffer from strangulation if a thief attempted to forcefully yank the handbag away from you.

Carry Contact Information For Your Sensitive Documents and Valuables

Create a list of addresses and telephone numbers for issuers of credit cards, the local embassies of the government of the country where you are based, as well as the four last digits of your credit card numbers — just in case your valuable and important cards or documents are lost or stolen. You may want to consider taking photographs or creating photocopies of important documents, such as your passport.

The last thing you want to do when you find out that something important or valuable has been lost or stolen is frantically attempt to figure out how to report it. You do not want to be stranded without your passport in a foreign country; nor do you want to waste valuable time trying to figure out how to contact the credit card company to close down your account while a thief is running amok with your credit card account number, racking up purchases with zeal. Store that contact information separately from the actual important or valuable instruments. Time is of the essence to a thief — and he or she is not going to stand there and question you for a photocopy of your passport or your listing of the contact information of the local embassy of the country where you are based after pilfering your passport.

Ensure Your Electronic Devices are Up-to-Date — If You Did Not Leave Them At Home

Do you really need a laptop computer, a cellular telephone, a video camera and a digital camera to lug around with you on your trip? Unless you are a professional photographer or traveling on business, your cellular telephone may be all you need to access the Internet, place telephone calls and photographically document your trip. Many hotel properties offer computers and peripherals with high-speed Internet access for a fee — or, better yet, for no cost at all.

Contact your service provider for details about placing calls while outside of the country where you are based.

Ensure that your electronic devices have the latest versions of software to secure the information you have stored on them — such as anti-virus and anti-spyware software in case you access the Internet in a manner which is not considered secure, for example.

Use the Hotel Safe

Why carry around superfluous items while you are out — to dinner at a restaurant, for example — when you can store them in the hotel safe? I have never been charged for having my valuable items securely stored in the hotel safe if I did not need them at that moment.

Notice I wrote hotel safe and not the safe which may be in your room, as it has been demonstrated that the safe in your hotel room may not be as secure as you might think. If you would rather not store items in the hotel safe, you might be better off storing items in hidden obscure places in the hotel room — if you remember to retrieve them when you are ready to check out, of course.

Be Careful With Your Cards and Documents

More and more credit cards, passports and licenses are equipped with Radio Frequency Identification — or RFID — technology which allows you to simply wave your card or document in front of a nearby scanner. This may increase the convenience while reducing the time of using these cards or documents — but it also increases the convenience of thieves using an unauthorized scanner nearby to capture your data without you even knowing it. Consider the purchase of a wallet or purse specifically designed to store your cards and documents while blocking the waves emitted by the Radio Frequency Identification technology.

Do Not Let Your Card Out of Your Sight

In order to expedite a purchase transaction more quickly, some people will whip out their card and hold it in plain view while waiting in line — but then what is to stop a thief from pulling out a portable electronic device such as a “smartphone” and quickly taking a photograph of the number of the card?

I leave my cards in my front pocket until I am absolutely ready to use them — and even then, when I pull a card out, I ensure that the important numbers are covered and quickly retrieve the card, placing it back in my front pocket as soon as possible.

If you really want to quicken the transaction, pull the card out of your wallet or purse in a private place beforehand and place it in your front pocket where it will be easily accessible by you when it is time to process the transaction. Immediately put it back in your front pocket when the transaction is done and wait until you reach a private place to store the card back in your wallet or purse.

This, of course, leads to the question of the checking at airport security checkpoints of identification officially issued by governments: is it effective — and is there a chance that this could lead to you possibly becoming a victim of identity theft?

Memorize Your Social Security Number

If you are an American citizen, memorize your Social Security number. Carrying it around with you is unnecessary and only poses a significantly greater risk of exposing you to identity theft.

If you have any type of account which uses your Social Security number for either the account number or the password, get it changed as soon as possible.

Do Not Fall Victim to a “Phishing” Scam

If someone posing as a bank, airline, hotel company or other enterprise contacts you to provide or verify sensitive information — such as account numbers or passwords — be wary. Legitimate companies typically do not request this type of information through solicitations. If you receive such a request, contact or visit the bank, company or Internet web site directly as soon as possible and verify why the information is being requested. Never reply directly to an e-mail message — or click on a link embedded in it — telephone call or letter requesting sensitive information and data. While the request may seem legitimate — it is very easy these days to replicate an official logo or sound professional — the people behind the request may very well be potential identity thieves. Banks and companies usually ask for you to verify yourself — and they will not be insulted if you verify them in return. In fact, verification is encouraged.

While “phishing” is the act of attempting to acquire personal information and data — such as passwords and credit card details — by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication, “smishing” is a form of “phishing” where short message service — or SMS — technology used for text messaging is incorporated in the scam.

Check All of Your Accounts Upon Your Return

When I return home from traveling, I immediately log into my credit card accounts via the Internet and check to ensure that there are no unauthorized charges on any of them. You can also carefully check your credit card statements if you receive them by postal mail.

Use Complex Passwords Which You Can Easily Memorize

More and more, companies are requiring passwords which contain upper-case and lower-case letters, numbers and even punctuation symbols. Choose your password wisely in a way which you can easily remember it — for example, I could use The Gate and my birthday in the form of TheGateonFlyerTalk_02301998

…and — as you may have already guessed — that is not my birthday. Nice try, though…

Wipe Out Information When Disposing of Electronic Equipment

Before you dispose of an old computer or electronic device, first be sure to wipe out or destroy the hard disk drive or flash drive. Believe it or not, simply deleting files — and even formatting the drive — leaves your data intact enough that even a novice thief could recover your information. Properly “wiping” the data from a physical drive requires special software. Better yet — remove your drive from the electronic device and completely destroy it in any way possible in order to sufficiently destroy the disk and its contents to render them completely unrecoverable.

Summary

It is almost impossible to trust anyone these days when it comes to identity theft — as demonstrated with the example of the employees of jetBlue Airways who were accused of committing identity theft almost exactly six years ago — and it is equally almost impossible to completely prevent yourself from becoming a victim of identity theft. However — by following the aforementioned list of recommended precautionary actions — you can significantly mitigate the risk.

Other than the occasional contact from an employee of the security department of any of the companies which issued my credit cards to inform me — after they have been verified, of course — that there is a possible fraud alert on my credit card account from someone attempting to abuse it, I have thankfully never been a victim of identity theft. Unfortunately, many people are victims of someone attempting to use their credit card account numbers fraudulently to purchase items — but fortunately, those issues are usually resolved quickly and easily, thanks to the proactive practices of the issuers of credit card. Closing the affected credit card account and opening a new one is an irritating though minor inconvenience at best — but it sure beats the alternative…

…and if you are already experiencing the alternative by having already unfortunately become the victim of identity theft, help is available: please be sure to contact the Identity Theft Resource Center toll-free at 1-888-400-5530. The services offered are at no cost to victims of identity theft. You can also find out additional information through the Federal Trade Commission of the United States.

I hope that this information has been helpful to you. If you have any additional helpful information to minimizing becoming a victim of identity theft, please add it in the Comments below.

Comments (Showing 10 of 10)

  • dhuey at 5:57pm May 03, 2013

    I’ve been the “victim” of identity theft. I’ll explain why I use quotation marks in a moment.

    A few years ago, someone added his name to my United Airlines Chase Visa account. He then changed the address on my account to his, had a card with his name on it sent to him, and then he went to town in Beverley Hills. He made about $30,000 in purchases at Cartier there, and made about $10,000 in cash advances at Wells Fargo.

    So, how did the fraud squad at Chase see a problem on my account? The answer is that I ordered some chocolates online for my mother. That triggered a fraud alert at Chase, so I got the call asking me to verify recent purchases. Chocolates? Yep, I ordered that, so everything is fine, I said. I’m totally serious about all of that — that’s how it really happened.

    Okay, I said, I’ll go through other charges. $10,000 at Cartier-Beverley Hills? Um, no. Another $10,000 charge at Cartier? You serious? I don’t think I’ve ever been in a Cartier store.

    In the end, the fraudster took Chase for about $40,000. I offered to help in the criminal investigation, but no one at Chase seemed too interested in exploring that.

    The bottom line in my case was that I wasn’t victimized by identify theft in any meaningful sense of that word. It was a minor hassle for me, and it didn’t cost me a dime. Let’s reserve “victim” for those who actually suffer serious harm.

    I’m sure that for some people identity theft can be a much bigger problem. But if it only amounts to someone stealing via your credit card account, that’s only a problem for your bank; it’s only a nuisance for you.

  • Brian Cohen at 6:22pm May 03, 2013

    Good advice about the use of the word victim, dhuey — and thank you for sharing your story.
    While what I experienced is nowhere nearly as outrageous as what you experienced — or nearly as ridiculous — I too am confounded by what appears to be a lack of interest by the credit card companies at attempting to catch and prosecute the suspects.
    Am I wrong in saying that I would rather see the credit card companies attempt to cut their losses as a result of the prevention of future experiences similar to yours — and possibly deterring thieves in the process — instead of raising fees and charging higher interest rates to their customers?

  • HDQDD at 7:13pm May 03, 2013

    To the author, I think you made a mistake in the ATM section. You say use an ATM card to get best rate on foreign currencies (which I totally agree with). Then in the next paragraph you say not to use an ATM card while traveling… Which is it? I think you mean the former not the latter.

  • Brian Cohen at 7:53pm May 03, 2013

    I did not say not to use an automated teller machine card when traveling — rather, I wrote not use a credit card or a debit card at an automated teller machine for the reasons specified above.
    If you are concerned about thieves stealing your data electronically from your automated teller machine card and are not in a hurry, you may want to get cash from a live person at a bank during business hours as opposed to using an automated teller machine at all.
    Please correct me if I misinterpreted your comment, HDQDD. Thank you.

  • JEFFJAGUAR at 5:39am May 04, 2013

    Good advice; especially about using a debit card instead of a credit card for purchases; I have never gotten the logic behind that. I do have a couple of differences of opinions.

    1. Identity theft and the compromise of your credit card are two entirely different manners. I hear some morons say, for example, not to use a credit card for small purchases due to the possibility of having a credit card compromised. What nonsense. While one shouldn’t go out of their way looking for trouble, having a credit card number compromised (not a debit card) is something that is easily resolved. And few banks, if any in the USA, even charge the $50. It’s happened to me three or four times in the last 20 years and in each case, a couple of phone calls resolved the matter. The biggest pain is when my main credit card account was compromised and I had to start notifying each of the merchants who regularly debit my card such as the phone companies, the mobile phone companies and the like of the new number and the new ccv numbers; but then again that’s no more difficult than when the card expires and a new card is issued with a new expiration date.

    2. I will never show identification to a cashier for using a credit card. MC/visa regs make it quite clear that while a merchant may ask for id, a transaction cnnot be refused for failure to produce such. Why people wrie see ID on the signature panel is beyond me. When you show ID to somebody, a quickly memorized driver’s license number, for example, may be the start of identity theft something much more difficult to deal with than mere credit card fraud. I have reported several merchants to visa/mc who have pulled this garbage on me and one even put up a sign at the cashiers “apologizing” to its customer because some unknowing customer (me) had complained as if to say if their credit card had been compromised, and fraudulent transactions run, it’s my fault.

    3. I never allow a restaurant or anybody else to take my credit card to some back room to swipe my card. I insist on going to the cashier with them and it has caused some verbal spats. Of course, in Europe, because of chip and pin, they bring the terminal right to your table and swipe the card (we won’t go through this whole chip and pin controversy here) right in front of you. Restaurants shold be prohibited by the credit card companies from doing this swiping in back rooms. Either they must have a cashier where you pay your bill or have the portable credit card terminals so prevelant in Europe.

  • harvyk at 5:57pm May 04, 2013

    I don’t know if they are available in the states (I can’t imagine why not), but in AU we have travel money cards.

    They look and act like credit cards, but it’s your own money that you are spending (that way you don’t come home to a massive bill that you’re paying off for ever and a day), if one goes for a trip of it’s own a quick call back to the issuing agency (in my case AusPost) will quickly put a stop to someone else living it big on your funds.

    The biggest risk of id theft comes from phishing scams. That said unless you truly believe that a Nigerian prince would contact a complete stranger and give that complete stranger millions of dollars you a probably pretty safe.

  • Fayeflyer at 8:27pm May 04, 2013

    Through the whole article and comments, I never thought about the ‘ask for ID’ on credit card back as a problem – thank you JEFFJAGUAR. I’ve used that for years, thinking it was a deterrent to anyone who took the card. Sounds like I’m better off protecting my other personal info over some fraudulent charges from that card.

  • HDQDD at 8:47am May 05, 2013

    @Brian: a debit card and ATM card are the same thing in the US. I highly recommend using an ATM (Debit) card to get cash in a foreign country. You get the best rate that way. I wouldn’t use a shady ATM (just like I wouldn’t at home), but if you choose a bank ATM your risk is no higher than it is at home.

  • Brian Cohen at 2:04pm May 05, 2013

    Actually, it depends on the bank, HDQDD. The card which I currently have is only for use at automated teller machines and not for debit card transactions. This is so that if it ever gets lost or stolen, it can only be used at automated teller machines and not at stores or other commercial businesses.
    Regardless, I would then amend what I wrote to say that if you are going to use a debit card, use it only for cash withdrawals at automated teller machines and for no other purpose while you are traveling.

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