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Identity Theft: Are you your own nightmare?

Your identity helps define your life. Protect it! Information such as your social security number and birth date is widely used as tracking mechanisms by doctors, employers, insurance companies, financial entities, and government revenue agencies. Your identifying information is already too widely available to wrongdoers. Despite this, your greatest risk may actually be yourself.

Fraudsters pursue the easiest targets and that target may actually be you. Complacency or living life with too great of trust for fellow citizens can place you in harm’s way. One recently revived tactic of obtaining personal information is for fraudsters to contact business owners while proclaiming to be agents of the IRS and state revenue agencies. They may indicate they are calling about a discrepancy in a social security number, birth date, or for any other reason that may appear to be legitimate. Let it be known, however, that NO REVENUE AGENCY WILL CONTACT YOU BY TELEPHONE. They will ONLY contact you by snail mail.

The same holds true for financial institutions. Banks and credit unions will not contact you by telephone to make inquiries regarding your account or personal information. If something is amiss, they will snail mail a notice to your address of record. The exception is if a financial institution (including issuers of credit cards) contacts your phone number of record regarding activity flagged by their fraud prevention department. However, it is still best to contact the bank using contact information you have located via your own research (see my first point below).

Following are several tips on how to safeguard your personal information:

  • If you receive a notice (whether by snail mail, e-mail, or telephone), never respond using the information on the notice. Instead, find the contact information yourself on the entity’s website or in the phonebook. If you need to call regarding a credit or debit card, the institution’s phone number is on the back of the card. If the notice is legitimate, the representative you contact using your own research will be able to locate your account information to discuss the matter outlined in the notice. All relevant phone numbers will be available on the revenue agency or business’s websites.
  • If you receive a telephone call that you believe to be legitimate, NEVER give personal information. Instead, tell the agent you will contact the inquiring company or agency yourself to confirm the validity of the request. If it is a legitimate request, the agent will understand. Kindly ask that they make a note of this in your account.
  • Wrongdoers love to proclaim to be collection agencies and they utilize scare tactics for squeezing information out of you. If you are contacted by a collection agency, write down the information including company name, agent name, and phone number. Research the company on the internet. Most importantly, run credit reports with all three credit reporting agencies to verify if any of your accounts have been sent to collections. Furthermore, contact the original creditor to find out if they did in fact send your account to collections and if they did, have the creditor verify the collection company’s information. NEVER release personal information without digging around to verify the validity of the request.
  • Run detailed credit reports from the three reporting agencies (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) at least once per year. Thoroughly review your credit records and make note of any discrepancies or oddities you identify, and then contact the appropriate creditors and reporting agencies.
  • • Subscribe to a credit watch service as offered by each of the credit reporting agencies. Even better, place a freeze on your credit. Note, however, that a credit freeze will prevent you from obtaining credit until you release the freeze. There is also generally a fee associated with initiating and removing credit freezes.
  • Carefully review your financial account statements. Do not assume small transactions you do not remember making are in fact legitimate. Wrongdoers generally make small “test” transactions, often of $1-5, to see if an account is active. iTunes transactions are common test charges because of the popularity of the electronic media platform, so be ultra suspicious of such transactions. Furthermore, fraud many times originates from a foreign country. If the wrongdoer decides your bank account is active, they will then use it for higher dollar amounts. I have identified several instances of fraud by routinely reviewing bank accounts. In one occurrence with a client, I discovered the fraud a week before the bank’s fraud prevention department finally froze the account.
  • When shopping online at a website you have never purchased from, do not assume it is legitimate regardless of how professional or legitimate the website may appear to be. Do a little snooping around. The first thing I do on a new website is click on the “Contact Us” page. If it is a genuine company–one that likely not rip you off or steal your personal information–you will find a physical address and phone number. If the only form of contact is an e-mail form, find a new website. Fraudulent websites want to give as little information as possible about those behind the scheme and most of the time will only provide an e-mail form as a method of contact. Another thing I do is click on the “About Us” page; I carefully read the content and look for any inconsistencies in information such as the date of establishment, location, etc. Another characteristic of fraudulent sites is that they tend to “ramble” on and on without actually saying anything of substance. A mile long, hollow sales pitch is enough reason, in my opinion, to be suspicious.