It's that time of year.
This is when we all start getting those emails that want to steal our secret codes and passwords. You know the ones: "Your Account Is About To Be Closed," "There's A Block On Your Account,", "Congratulations - You've Won The Lottery (that you never entered)."and my favorite "Could You Help Me Claim My Funds?".
This is also the time of year when we start shopping for gifts and the last thing you need is for your bank or credit card accounts to be stolen by "cyber grifters". They are counting on some of us to follow the instructions in the email.
First and foremost, DON'T FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS IN THE EMAIL! If you think there might be a problem, access the account in question as you normally do on your PC and not with the link supplied in the phony email.
I've had some very authentic looking email supposedly from banks, that even went so far as to copy the colors of the bank logo and stationery style. But, don't fall for the scam. In fact, don't even open the email, because many are just set to loose a virus program on your computer by being opened. Simply forward the suspicious email to the "spoof email" address supplied by your bank, or credit card company.
Identity Theft is a worldwide epidemic. According to the Better Business Bureau and Javelin Research, almost 9 million Americans fell prey to identity theft this year with fraud costing businesses and individuals over $56 billion dollars.
There are ways to reduce your chances of identity theft:
1. Understand debit card dangers: When it comes to fraud, debit cards carry much greater personal liability than credit cards, depending on how quickly you report the loss of the card. If you fail to report unauthorized use within 60 days of receiving your bank statements, you could lose all the money in the account and be held responsible for the amount of money that has been tapped from your line of credit.
2. Rethink check writing: That little slip of paper has way too much information. Some experts advise against check writing because it gives away your address, bank account number, signature and license number to complete strangers. On top of that, there's no federal legislation to limit your liability for forged checks (each state has its own set of rules). Experts advise that you look into automating your bill paying.
3. Secure your mail: Your mailbox is a goldmine of information. Between bank statement, bills, and all those pre-approved credit card offers, your mailbox is loaded with personal data which identity thieves can use to easily apply for a credit card in your name. Unless you diligently check your credit report, you may never even know about it. One way to avoid this is to have your mailbox under lock and key, but most of us in Santa Clarita have our mailboxes at the curb in front of our house and the postman frowns on carrying dozens and dozens of keys around. The other solution is to have a rented mailbox, or to foil "dumpster-diving" thieves by buying a shredder and destroy documents before discarding.
4. Go virtual: For shopping online, there are "virtual" card numbers. These are randomly generated credit card numbers that are disposable and that on-line shoppers use once and throw away. It's linked directly to your real credit card account so purchases show up on your monthly bill. The service is easy to use - and it's FREE! All you need to do is register with companies offering the virtual card, and they are MBNA, Discover, and Citigroup.
5. Create an emergency identity kit: Would you know how to contact your credit card company in an emergency? Create an emergency kit that contains: your account number, expiration date, issuing company name, and emergency contact number for each card you own. While you're at it, make copies of your driver's license, social security card, birth certificate and passport and store them in a locked box or file cabinet, or a safe deposit box. I like the safe deposit box best, because this gives you protection in the event of a catastrophe such as fire, earthquake, etc.
This may all seem like a lot of unnecessary work, but if you're ever the victim of identity theft - even just once - you'll realize that it's well worth the effort.
Many of us forget that were it not for what we carry in our wallets or in our purses, we're all John and Jane Doe's if we can't speak due to injury or are unaccompanied by someone who knows us. How much less stressful is it to know that in a bank box, no matter where you are, there are items that can verify your identity. Better to be safe, than sorry!