Be extra vigilant against ID theft

I resisted shopping online for the longest time. I feared my credit card number would be stolen and I would spend a few years of my life trying to explain that I did not buy a Hummer with my Visa card.

It turns out that lots of folks are fearful of identity theft, a crime in which someone steals key pieces of your personal and financial information in order to impersonate you and get goods and services.

In one survey, 58 percent of consumers polled said they intended to reduce their online shopping during this holiday season because of identity theft and other privacy concerns. The online shopping study was conducted by TNS, a marketing information company, and TRUSTe, an online privacy company.

Eight percent of those surveyed said they were so concerned about identity theft that they wouldn’t shop online at all.

Although online shopping has its risks, your credit card number and other personal information are just as likely to be stolen in low-tech ways. To identity thieves, a crowded mall is like Chuck E. Cheese to children – a paradise of commotion.

This time of year, criminals are just waiting for you to leave your purse unattended or open as you hustle around looking for holiday gifts. They love men who carry their wallets in easy to pick places.

According to a recent American Express study, consumers have a lot to learn about how to protect themselves against identity theft. While 77 percent claim they take precautions to secure their information, nearly half still make the mistake of carrying their Social Security number in their wallet. Twenty-eight percent of those surveyed don’t check to see if a Web site is secure when shopping online.

At the risk of repeating information you may already have heard, here are some tips that can help you avoid becoming a victim of identity thieves:

* Write, “Check photo ID,” in ink on the back of your credit card near your signature. This is an effective way of getting cashiers to check the credit card against your photo identification. It’s just one more safety check, and in my experience, I’m asked about 90 percent of the time for more ID.

* Michael Zmistowski, a financial adviser in Tampa, sent this tip to his clients: While shopping, keep a watch for people standing nearby who have a cell phone with a camera. With the camera cell phones available now, someone could easily take a clear picture of the information on your credit card.

* In January, immediately open and check your credit card statements for unfamiliar purchases. Keep all the receipts from your holiday shopping sprees in one place so you can cross-check them with your billing statement. This is so important because without the receipts, you could easily overlook something you didn’t buy.

* Don’t be a victim of “phishing,” which is when crooks send e-mails that look as if they come from legitimate companies requesting certain information. According to the Anti-Phishing Working Group, phishing e-mails convince up to 5 percent of recipients to respond. When they do, consumers typically provide information such as credit card, bank and Social Security numbers or user names and passwords – resulting in identity theft. Be very suspicious of e-mails sent to you unsolicited. In the American Express survey, 88 percent of respondents didn’t have a clue what phishing was.

* Buy a shredder and make sure you use it, especially to shred any store receipts with your credit card number.

* If you’re going to shop online, make sure the site is secure. According to the Better Business Bureau, sites that have technology to secure transactions will have “https” instead of “http” in the Web address of the page that asks for credit card information. Another way to tell if the site is secure is if you see an icon of a locked padlock, which usually can be found at the bottom of the screen.

Finally, if you suspect that your identity has been stolen, don’t wait until after the holidays to report the crime, says TrueCredit, a provider of credit management services.

You need to immediately contact your creditors and the three major credit bureaus. Thankfully, you now need to call only one credit bureau to place fraud alerts on all three of your credit reports.

A fraud alert is supposed to result in creditors contacting you before opening any new accounts or making any changes to your existing accounts. The Federal Trade Commission has a link on its Web site with steps to take if you’re a victim of identity theft. Go to and click on the link for consumers.

I don’t think I can say it enough – be careful out there.

(c) Washington Post Writers Group

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