That’s right. It’s free, there’s nothing to sign up for, nothing to buy, and no salesman will call. How do I know this? Because the absolutely free and best way to prevent identity theft is to do it yourself!
You have all the tools you need right now. Whether you’re the most technically savvy, web surfing, app using, plugged-in person, or you still cut out articles you see in the newspaper and snail-mail them to your children.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the many services out there that exist to help prevent identity theft are scams or just out to get you, but I am saying that safeguarding something as personal as your identity can be, and in my opinion, should be YOUR responsibility. And what’s more, it’s not even that difficult.
Let me start with the basic principle. It’s all about checking your stuff. Looking at bills that are higher and even lower than usual. Spotting irregular activity in things you spend money on often or subscribe to. Even if you use auto-pay for your bills, you should be checking the amounts every month. Auto-pay exists so that you aren’t late paying your bills. It’s not intended to make you lazy. After all, it IS your money. Shouldn’t you know where every cent is going? If you see anything you don’t understand or agree with, ask about it. It is your right. Don’t feel stupid. As my father always told me, the only dumb question is the one you don’t ask. I worked in customer service for many years and I can’t tell you how absolutely frustrating it was when a customer would ask about an irregular bill from several months or even a year or more ago, and want it fixed. The longer you wait, the harder it is. And I’m sorry, I was always willing to answer any questions a customer asked about their account, but I have always believed that it is as much the customer’s responsibility as it is a company’s responsibility to keep an eye on your accounts.
Now, for the tech-savvy person. Virtually every service you pay for has a website or an app to track your activity. Are you using them? Are you using them often? Before you start thinking that you don’t have time to keep constantly logging in to check things, I respectfully refer you to the previous paragraph about your money being your responsibility. However, we all lead very busy lives these days and could probably use some help. And there is help. Most banks and credit card companies have e-mail and text alerts that you can sign up for. Essentially, they’re already offering to look out for you and it’s usually free. I’m not talking about some identity theft insurance package they might offer you, I’m talking about basic alerts. All you have to do is sign up and you’ll start getting alerts. I did this with my bank and credit card accounts and it has saved me from identity theft and fraudulent charges quite a few times. I am usually alerted within minutes of the situation and can act quickly and prevent a major personal financial disaster. This has also worked with my cell phone carrier to prevent overages. There are also two great services that I highly recommend.
MINT – This is a great and FREE way to track your accounts and bills. They have apps for both iPhone and Android devices. http://www.mint.com
BILL GUARD – This is a great FREE way to keep track of your spending habits. Bill Guard also incorporates a great feature that allows you to look at every single purchase you make and be sure it’s not suspect. They have apps for both iPhone and Android devices. http://www.billguard.com
Both services require you to log into your accounts with your online credentials, but they are both trusted services.
As for all your passwords, store them somewhere designed to keep passwords safe. Don’t just put them in a Word document or something. I have heard of people adding extra characters to their passwords and those same people forget how many or what characters they added. Not to mention the fact that since we are creatures of habit, if someone you know steals that file, they could probably figure out your passwords. The best thing to do (OK, this isn’t free but it’s not expensive) is to invest in a password program or app that is specifically designed to store passwords. The big thing to keep in mind when using one of these programs or apps is what I call the “Password Password.” That is, the password that grants access to the program or app and, by extension, all of your passwords. Make that password TOTALLY AND COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than the rest of your passwords. Especially if you use similar passwords for everything. My personal favorite is an app called 1Password. You can learn more about it at https://agilebits.com/onepassword.
Now, for the not-so-tech-savvy person (or maybe you just don’t believe in tracking your money online). The companies you do business with ALL mail you things REGULARLY. If you’re not getting a bill or statement from a company you do business with, call them and straighten it out. The fact that you haven’t gotten a bill from the electric company in three months does not mean that they think you deserve free electricity or something. Missing utility bills are especially alarming because utility bills are commonly used to establish residency when applying for credit. If that utility bill is missing because it was stolen, someone could be applying for credit in your name. Read all your bills entirely. Report anything irregular. Now this will definitely not be as fast as text or e-mail alerts, but the worst you will be is a month behind and that’s not too bad. And don’t fool yourself into thinking that because you’re not doing business online that you’re somehow better off than those of us who do. People were diving into dumpsters and stealing mail long before they were hacking passwords or stealing electronic credit card databases. That brings me to one investment you should make if you don’t already have this item in your house…a shredder. A good one. One that cuts paper and old credit cards into little tiny pieces. (I know, again, not free but a small cost) If you’re really paranoid about people even getting their hands on your shredded documents, do what one of my friends did. Store the shreds (only the paper ones) in paper bags and bring the bags of shredded documents to the next bonfire you attend. Now you’ve shredded and burned your sensitive documents and there will be an awesome burst of flame when the bonfire penetrates the paper bag. I’d highly recommend standing back when doing this. 😉
What about unsolicited calls or e-mails or texts? Trust your instincts. Also, as a general rule, companies with which you have an account will never EVER ask you to “Click here to verify your account” through an e-mail or text. Nor will they ask you to call a number you’ve never seen before. They will tell you to log in yourself through their main website or to call their main Customer Service number or at the very least, a well established number (which can usually be found easily on their Website or other documentation) and whatever you need to do will be there, generally with instructions. Also, look for misspellings, broken english and an unnecessarily urgent writing style.
Here is a text I, myself got the other day claiming to be from Bank of America. Now, as it happens, I do business with them so I should do what this text says right? Take a look and judge for yourself before reading on…
Notice the strange address it’s from, the use of the word “reverification” which isn’t even a word, the extensive use of capital letters, the improper use of dashes , referring to themselves as “BOA-Offices,” the cramming in of some sort of long message id, the unfamiliar phone number. But it goes further. I called the number just to see what would happen. The person who set up the number was smart enough to record and use the “Welcome To Bank Of America” voice prompt you would normally get if you called their real Customer Service number. This was supposed to give me a false sense of security that I was actually calling Bank of America. Then a different automated voice, one that is very crudely done and even speaks with broken and improper English, came on and told me that due to suspicious activity my card was suspended and that I need to perform a verification to unlock it. It then instructed me to enter my card number, expiration date, 3 digit security code, last 4 of my social security number, street address and PIN. I entered various combinations of 12345678 but was careful to keep them in the formats asked for. When I was all done, the voice thanked me and told me that my card was now fully protected. Really? That’s interesting considering all of the information I entered was false. This text and accompanying number were obviously used to collect and steal data. The scammer was hoping I would be scared enough to just do what they told me. The unfortunate fact is, most people are that scared.
As for phone calls. If you are uncomfortable giving out information that is asked of you, tell them that. If they are calling from the real company, they will understand. If they get pushy, they are probably a fraud.
Bottom line, the best person to take care of your identity is you. Nobody is going to look out for you, at least in the business world, more than you are. You don’t have to adopt some “me against them” mentality. But as David Horowitz, host of the 80’s TV Show, “Fight Back” used to say, “Stay aware and informed, and fight back, and don’t let ANYONE rip you off!”
I invite your comments and input. I will update this article as new information becomes available.