Financial Literacy - Protecting your identity
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7 easy ways to be victimized by ID thieves

"It's funny, if you think about Gov. Spitzer. He used the name of a friend of his when he checked into the Mayflower. Many people do that when they commit ID fraud. It's just a name that comes to mind or it's someone that they know enough about that they can answer the questions like the address, mother's maiden name, birth date," says Cate.

"Why go to strangers when you can use someone's info that you already know?" he says.

Make your checks payable to criminals

If you're like most people, you wouldn't post your checking account information on your front door, though you should if you'd like to be a victim of fraud. Similarly, checks reflecting the same information can be dropped casually into unsecured mailboxes.

Statistically the chances of your mailbox being targeted by criminal elements are low, but not that low. According to the 2008 Identity Fraud Survey Report from Javelin Strategy and Research, almost 1 in 10 victims of identity theft who can pinpoint the scene of the crime say that it happened at the mailbox.

"That's checks, credit card statements, bank statements ... all neatly folded up for them in the mail," says James Van Dyke, president and founder of Javelin Strategy and Research. "Outgoing checks are right there, too, just like Frank Abagnale said in his books on crime and in the movie, "Catch Me If You Can." It's all about getting the paper check -- and then bleaching over the writing on the check."

Despite everything that can go wrong, in general, shopping and bill paying on the Internet can be the safest, most secure way to do business. To be really safe, Jon Ramsey of SecureWorks recommends keeping a separate computer for online banking. "If you don't have e-mail coming in on that computer, you're one step closer to being safer," he says.

Opt in!

While you're mailing checks from the unlocked mailbox, go ahead and get credit card companies to send you all the preapproved offers that the postman can cram into the box.

Similarly, don't get credit card statements online; leave them on the side of the road so that they're more convenient for fraudsters without the technical knowledge or follow-through to launch complicated hacking schemes.

"The U.S. Postal Service reports that criminals will go to one of those condo-style mailboxes where there are 15 or 20 mailboxes right there in one spot and they will just rip the back of it off with a crowbar," says Fred Cate, University of Indiana law professor. "It's really good that they're centralized so they can get to them really fast."

Nothing is too good to be true

Everyone wants to feel special and maybe more importantly, filthy rich. When reading an e-mailed proposition from an African business tycoon, an imperiled prince or downtrodden heiress offerings millions of dollars in exchange for some small measure of assistance, it's difficult not to wish it were true. Falling for the story will undoubtedly lead to unpleasantness, however.

But the obsequious appeal of Nigerian scams isn't always directed to the lowest common denominator. Many target victims of natural disasters, as well as taxpayers and sellers trying to unload some junk on eBay. Further, though there are ways for people to be scammed online, much more bamboozling happens in the real world by telephone or even in person.

Honest sales people may be the hardest hit from these scams. Who in their right mind will ever again buy anything from a random guy peddling magazine subscriptions?

These days one has to assume that any communication with a business or government entity that hasn't been specifically initiated by the consumer with the appropriate authentication process is a complete swindle.

"The best defense is good common sense. It's often overlooked, and it's a good approach," says SecureWorks' Jon Ramsey.


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