In the course of my practice, I have met some lovely people facing unfortunate circumstances. No one is thrilled about filing for consumer bankruptcy, but that feeling is multiplied ten fold when it is due to someone else ruining your finances. Within the past few years, I've met an increasing number of identity theft victims. Not all of them had to seek bankruptcy protection, but every single one of them felt vulnerable and violated. It is the attorney's role to protect the private information of her clients, so we take the necessary precautions at the office to do so. It is also my job to share this knowledge with others in the interest of a more equitable and just society. Here are four key ways to safeguard your personal information.
1. Store your personal documents in a safe place. Your social security card, medical records, credit card offers, and tax returns should be kept in a locked cabinet or a safe deposit box in a bank. The number of people whose identities are stolen as a result of a stolen purse or wallet containing their social security card is astonishing. Don't carry it with you. Similarly, your mail contains information that a thief can use to impersonate you in stores or online to open credit accounts. Be sure to check it promptly, and consider opting out of promotional offers.
2. Keep an eye on your accounts. Most banks and credit card issuers have a process for investigating suspicious transactions, but you can't alert them promptly if you don't check your account history on a regular basis. Sign up for online banking and be on the look out for transactions you don't recognize. It's also not a bad idea to subscribe to a monthly credit monitoring service to confirm that your debts are reported accurately and reflect only your account activity. If you don't want to pay for credit monitoring, you can always request a free copy of your credit report every calendar year at www.annualcreditreport.com.
3. Be cautious about sharing on social media. Many people (myself included) are active on social media in one way or another. That's fine. No judgment here. However, if you're traveling to Tahiti for your yearly vacation with the family, it might be wise not to announce it on Facebook. You never know who your friends are connected to, and depending on your security settings, you could be announcing your departure to a large number of people you don't know at all. No one likes to think about the fact that when you are abroad, your home is fair game for thieves for the entire duration of your trip. Tell your close friends and family your whereabouts. Your status updates and photos can come after you've enjoyed all that Tahiti has to offer.
4. Mind the shoulder snoopers. When you're in the grocery store checkout, and the time comes for you to swipe or insert your card, sometimes you're not alone. Sometimes there is a person possibly unfamiliar with Western standards for personal space. That person may be hovering over your shoulder. What do you do? If you're able to swipe your card, and you're using a debit card, run it as a credit card. This way you can bypass the need to insert your pin. If you're using an EMV chip card, it may be a good idea to cover the key pad or ask the cashier to enter your transaction as a credit purchase. A person who is physically close to you can look over your shoulder and clearly see your PIN number, and if he or she has a credit card cloning device, could make many more transactions from your card without you ever knowing. EMV chip technology has cut down on some of the risk of card cloning, but not every card issuer has embraced chip technology. It may seem rude to be suspicious of your neighbors, but better safe than sorry.
There are wallets that claim to protect your cards from cloning. They have mixed reviews at best, but with some simple common sense, you can avoid being victimized by thieves. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Be safe out there.
For more information on this topic, feel free to contact me at (713) 574-8626. I'd love to hear your thoughts.