In a perfect world, families would have the time and money to sue credit card companies and banks whose slack security enables identity theft. In the end, a storm of litigation would probably be the quickest way to stop the flood of personal information. Catherine Meyer, a privacy attorney with the international law firm, Pillsbury Winthrop, says that new federal privacy laws are in development that can help protect consumers. But laws take time.
Meanwhile, families can learn how to protect their own information by following some basic protective tips.
- Don't give your numbers to anyone who calls. Never divulge your credit card or Social Security number to a telephone marketer, even if they say they have personal information about you and even seem to know the first few numbers on the card. Most credit cards begin with common four-digit sequences, such as 5490 or others, so this is an easy trick to gain your confidence.
- Get a shredder. Most office-supply stores and many department stores carry inexpensive shredders that sit right on top of a standard wastebasket. Get in the habit of regularly shredding statements, receipts, credit card applications, and other material with personal identification information. Identity thieves have no shame about diving into trash to find this information, and once the garbage truck hauls it away, it's fair game for the bad guys.
- Observe the mail. If expected periodic mailings -- bills, statements, even magazines you subscribe to -- do not arrive, contact the sender to find out why. Some scammers fill out change of address forms to intercept mail.
- Never carry important numbers. Keep Social Security number, bank card PIN numbers, and mother's maiden name out of your wallet. People should memorize the numbers they need.
- Pore over credit card and telephone statements. It's surprising what people might overlook. One particular scam is to make small charges against thousands of cards hoping victims won't notice -- and many don't. According to the FTC, 52 percent of victims stopped further identity theft by reviewing their statements and contacting their credit or telephone companies immediately when an error was spotted.
- Don't respond to e-mails asking for personal information. That holds true even if it looks like the messages came from establishments individuals are likely to do business with. Do not follow the link in the e-mail. That's how victims are routed to a decoy site that looks exactly like the real thing, but it's just a front to get personal information. Close the message and key in Web addresses manually. Or telephone the company's 800 number and ask for a customer service representative. This way, you'll be assured of getting in contact with the real company, at which time you can inquire about any recently sent message to determine if it's legitimate or if it's a scam.
- Order a credit report. To make sure an identity hasn't been compromised, order your credit history once a year by contacting the three major credit reporting bureaus, Equifax (800-685-1111), Experian (888-397-3742) or TransUnion (800-916-8800). For as little as $10 per report, consumers can check their history, look for suspicious activity, and close old credit accounts (which could be vulnerable to exploitation). Each bureau also has detailed information for reporting fraudulent activity so that consumers can protect themselves against any future bad credit reports.
Continued on page 5: Protecting Your Child