By Barbara Pronin
Identity thieves, like cold germs, seem to be all around us, using stolen Social Security Numbers (SSNs) and other personally identifiable information (PII) in schemes to line their pockets while ruining the victim’s credit and financial standing.
When PII falls into the wrong hands, crooks can use that information to open and use new accounts, get medical care or other services, and wreak all kinds of financial havoc on unsuspecting prey. Clearly, protecting our confidential information is as important (if not more so) as protecting ourselves against the common cold.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggests several ways to keep confidential data safe:
- Know whom you share information with:
- Lock financial documents and records in a safe place at home. At work, keep your purse or wallet secure.
- When you go out, take only the ID and credit or debit cards you need. Leave your Social Security card at home.
- Before you share information at your workplace, a business, or your child's school, ask why they need it and how they will safeguard it.
- Shred credit card and bank statements, insurance forms, and any other documents containing PII before trashing them.
- Destroy labels on prescription bottles before you throw them out.
- Take outgoing mail to post office collection boxes. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox and request vacation holds if you go away.
- Be alert to impersonators:
- Don’t give out personal information on the phone, through mail or over the internet unless you’ve initiated the contact.
- If a company that claims to have an account with you sends an email asking for personal data, don’t click on links. Contact them through the customer service on your latest statement and ask whether they really sent a request.
- Keep passwords private and don’t overshare:
- Use strong passwords for your laptop and accounts. Think of a phrase and use the first letter of each word as your password, substituting numbers for some. For example, “I want to see the Pacific Ocean” could become Iw2CtPO.
- Don’t post PII on social media. Never share your Social Security number, address, or account numbers on publicly accessible sites.
- Keep your devices secure:
- Use and update anti-virus software, anti-spyware software, and a firewall.
- Avoid ‘phishing’ emails. Don’t open attached files or click on links sent by strangers.
- Avoid keeping financial information on your laptop. Don’t use an automatic login feature that saves your user name and password, and always log off when you’re finished.
- Avoid sending PII from your laptop or smartphone on a public wireless network in a public area.