Protecting Against Identity Theft

As someone who has faced two battles with identity theft, I want to share how you can protect yourself and the resources you can use if this happens. The most important thing you can do as a person who is bind or low vision is to educate and empower yourself to avoid being a victim of this type of crime. I learned some valuable information from a teleconference hosted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that was specific for people who are blind or low vision and that I am providing in this article.

How Does Identity Theft Happen

An essential thing to understand about identity theft is how it happens. Identity theft can occur from someone stealing your wallet or purse. This happened at my job at Macy’s, related to my personal story about battling identity theft. It can also occur from a person stealing your mail. It could be a credit card offer that comes in the mail, and the thief fills out the application, gets approval for the card, changes your address, and shops on that stolen card. Identity theft can also occur when friends, family, caregivers, or others close to you steal your information. These examples are more common, but today, identity theft occurs online with data breaches such as phishing emails disguised as legitimate. I see these messages pop up in my inbox from time to time. They will tell me to click on a link to verify my information, but I never do. Sometimes I will call the company and confirm that they sent the message to me, only to find out that it is a scam and to delete it. Another growing recent occurrence of identity theft is medical fraud and tax return theft. Criminals can get access to your medical records and receive treatment under your name or file a return and get your refund.

How to Protect Yourself Against Identity Theft

According to the FTC, here are some smart things you can do:

  • Empty your purse or wallet. Only carry the necessary things that you need. After my first battle with identity theft, I stop carrying my Social Security card and multiple credit cards.
  • Shred mail and other documents with your personal information on them. I purchased a small shredder at an office supply store. I shred medical documents, debit card receipts, and other things that have my bank or personal information on it.
  • Select assistants, advisors, and caregivers carefully. This can be tricky but important. Only work with people that you trust and have your best interest at heart. Because I don’t live with my family, I use a core of volunteers from my local blind rehabilitation center because they have had criminal background checks done and have been trained to work with people who are blind or low vision. You can also get references and referrals when working with someone you don’t know personally.
  • Don’t give out your personal information unless you know who you are dealing with. This can happen in person or over the telephone. I have people coming to my home soliciting and have gotten calls from telemarketers trying to sell me things. I say no thank you nicely to both all the time.
  • Monitor accounts. This could be your checking, saving, and retirement accounts. Every other day, I go online and check my bank accounts. If you cannot go online to do this, you can also call your financial institution. Many banks will quickly investigate and correct errors if you let them know immediately.
  • Get a free annual credit report each year. Checking your credit report is an excellent way to catch any criminal activity. I got a copy of my credit record and discovered what happened to my identity after my wallet was stolen at Macy’s. Every time the thief tried to use my credit to make purchases, it appeared on the report. You can get your copy by going to Annual Credit Report’s website. Also, now you can get your reports in alternative formats such as braille or large print.

Tips to Be Safe

Since identity theft is happening more and more online, here are some tips to be safe:

  • Keep anti-virus software current. When your antivirus software has lapsed, it opens the door for phishing emails, malware, and viruses to enter your computer’s hard drive.
  • Be careful using social networks. Giving too much personal information on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, is not a good idea. Also, set up your privacy controls so only people you want can access your information. I recently updated my LinkedIn profile to limit the information displayed for public viewing. I also don’t list my birth date or phone number on my profile.
  • Use difficult-to-guess passwords. Passwords with at least one capital letter, number, or symbol are more complicated to crack.
  • When shopping online, make sure the site is secure. I don’t do a lot of online shopping, but when I do, I go to sites with a good reputation and other ways to order besides just on the Internet.
  • Don’t click on links in unsolicited emails. When you see these kinds of messages, delete them. You can also call the company to inform them that emails are being sent out. They can verify if it is spam or not.

What to Do If Identity Theft Occurs

Even if you follow all the tips and suggestions above, identity theft can still happen. Here are four steps from the FTC that you can do if it happens to you.

Step 1: Contact credit reporting agencies. Many times if you are experiencing identity theft, you can contact one of the agencies, and they will contact the others on your behalf. Along with getting a free copy of your report, you can place a fraud alert or credit freeze on your report. This will help stop the thief from acquiring more credit. Here is a list of agencies:

Step 2: Contact companies where the thief committed fraud. When my ATM card was stolen, I immediately told the bank it was identity theft. They closed my account so no one could access my money or information. I also contacted the bank’s fraud department to let them know.

Step 3: File a complaint with the FTC. The FTC provides hotline phone counselors that can assist you with identity theft. You can reach them by calling 1.877.438.4338. You can also go online and file a complaint. Once online, you can print the complaint as an “ID Theft Affidavit” and use that as verification.

Step 4: File a Police Report. In both of my battles with identity theft, the police were called, and a police report was issued to me. This is very important as it will document the incident as a crime punishable by the law.

Be vigilant!

By Empish J. Thomas

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