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Why is there a $300 charge from a Walmart in Illinois on my bank statement? I live in Texas!
It’s everyone’s nightmare. It’s that moment when you log in to your bank account and see a purchase you can’t account for. Immediately, fear sets in when you realize someone out there is using your personal information to go on a shopping spree on your dime. You’ve been a victim of identity theft.
Javelin Strategy and Research says around 13 million Americans were identity fraud victims in 2015—the second highest number in the past six years. Identity thieves have stolen $112 billion during that same time.
Since Zander Insurance created their identity theft insurance program in 2006, they have seen the claims continue to grow each year. "Identity thieves are always changing their game," says Diane Sacks, Vice President at Zander. "It’s our job to help you stay ahead of them."
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So what should you do to help keep identity fraud from happening to you?
Avoiding Identity Theft
1. Check your credit report three times per year. The only free site is annualcreditreport.com, so if you get a report from each credit bureau—TransUnion, Equifax and Experian—you can get one every four months, then start over the next year. "Don’t use freecreditreport.com," Diane says. "It’s owned by TransUnion, and it’s not really free." If you see something strange on your report, take action immediately.
Make sure your computer has updated anti-virus software. "This also includes anti-keylogging software, so no one can hack into your computer. Also, when you’re on a mobile device, never input your banking or any other personal account and password information while on a public Wi-Fi. Identity thieves are just waiting for opportunities like that," Diane says.
2. Change your passwords every 90 days. This includes your bank accounts, email, and social media. "Once a thief gets one of your passwords, they’ll try it on many other sites. Facebook gets hacked all the time, so you don’t want them getting more personal information about you," Diane says. She suggests making your password a difficult combination of uppercase letters, lowercase letters, and characters.
3. Check your online bank account every day. "Banks have systems that watch your spending patterns and regular charges, and they’ll flag your account if something irregular is going on," Diane says. She adds that it’s still important for you to log on every day and make sure there aren’t any weird charges connected to your account. You are your first line of defense against identity theft.
4. Don’t send bills from your personal mailbox. "A lot of people are so concerned with digital fraud, they forget the easiest type of identity theft—just stealing mail out of your mailbox," she says. "Don’t put checks in your mailbox because, when they have a check, they have your bank account number and routing number. That’s just handing vital information to a thief." Diane suggests using the post office or a postal service mailbox to send bills. She also says to grab any mail out of your mailbox as soon as possible, as thieves thrive on grabbing those credit card mailers. "At the end of the day," she says, "thieves are lazy and look for the easiest way to get your information. Sometimes, that’s just your mailbox."
5. Don’t forget about your kids’ information. Kids are easy identity theft targets because thieves correctly assume it will probably be a long time before the theft is detected. Kids aren’t credit active until they turn 18 at the earliest. Diane suggests using TransUnion’s free Child Identity Theft Inquiry. "Fill out your child’s information, and you’ll receive an email back. If your child has a credit file, then that’s not a good sign. Your credit isn’t like your Social Security number. You’re not born with credit, and you’ll only have a credit report if you’re credit active." If someone is using your kid’s Social Security number, take action immediately.
6. Do the little things. In addition to the tips above, Diane says you can do a few small things to keep your personal information safe.
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- Check the Explanation of Benefits (EOB) statement from your insurance company. "That’s a great way to detect medical fraud," she says.
- Make sure you take advantage of the security code or thumbprint to get into your phone. And also register with iCloud so you can remotely wipe your phone if it gets stolen.
- Never keep your Social Security card in your wallet. "I recently had a client who kept her social and her kids’ socials in her wallet. So when her purse got stolen, that was bad news."
- If you receive a notification about a data breach (such as the Target data breach a few years ago), start paying extra attention. "That doesn’t mean you’re a victim," Diane says, "but that does increase your risk. That’s when you start taking proactive steps to protect yourself."
When It Happens You
Now, let’s say you’ve done everything right—or maybe you’ve done everything wrong—and your identity still gets stolen. In today’s world, there’s simply no way to fully protect yourself against identity theft. So what do you do in that situation?
1. Place a fraud alert on your credit reports. Make sure you notify all three credit bureaus. Initially, you’ll get a 90-day fraud alert, but once you’ve proven you’re a victim of identity theft it will extend to seven years.
2. Notify your banks and credit card companies and close all your accounts. Diane even suggests opening your new account at a different bank and transferring the money over to be extra safe.
3. Wipe your phone remotely and change your phone number. "If your phone gets stolen, you need to remotely wipe it immediately," Diane says. "If you can’t do that, then talk to your provider. You might need to change your cell phone number as well."
When your identity is stolen, "the reality is that you’re a sitting duck," she says. "They’re probably going to use your information, but you’re just not sure how. At Zander, we monitor your information and search the dark web monthly to make sure your information isn’t being shared online via data thieves. You need to be on high alert, and we can help."
The most important information to protect, Diane adds, is your Social Security number. Credit card and debit card fraud is just one small part of identity theft. "The worst type of fraud is when someone has your unique name, date of birth, and Social Security number. That’s when they can get a job, file taxes, and even receive medical care in your name," she says. "Do everything you can to protect your Social Security number."
Identity theft isn’t going away, so the best thing you can do is safeguard you and your family from this nightmare scenario. If you want to know more about Zander’s Identity Theft Protection program, visit ZanderIns.com.