Everyone makes mistakes. After all, it’s only human to goof up now and then. But if you want to protect yourself from identity theft and other financial scams, you need to play it safe, be smart and avoid simple mistakes that can expose your financial data and identity to fraudsters.
“Some people accuse me of being paranoid about it, but if you talk to people who’ve gotten into issues with identity theft, it created havoc in their lives. It’s a big deal,” says Conrad Ciccotello, director of graduate wealth management programs at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
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Never carry a Social Security card, whether it’s your own or your spouse’s, parent’s, child’s or other family member’s, in your wallet. You’ll need your Social Security number to start a new job, apply for a mortgage or open a bank account, but other than those and a few other rare situations, most people don’t need to give out their Social Security number on a day-to-day basis. Another tip: Don’t write a Social Security number on a scrap of paper and carry that in your wallet instead of a Social Security card. If your wallet is lost or stolen, a person of criminal intent can easily guess what those nine digits are.
Elevators, public streets, restaurants, airport terminals — these are but a few of the public places where Linda Foley, founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego, says a private conversation on a cellphone can be easily overheard by someone who can memorize or write down any financial information that’s disclosed.
“You don’t have soundproofing around you,” she says.
If you have a genuine need to discuss your finances or recite a Social Security, driver’s license or bank account number on the telephone, do so in private, not on a cellphone in a public place. You never know who may be listening to your conversation.
It’s easy to make new friends on social networking websites, but not all of the people you may encounter are who they say they are. Some of them are scammers on the prowl for information they can exploit or sell.
Foley calls such activities the “sweetheart scam” because they occur when your new best friend or sweetheart on the Internet asks for information about you. Seemingly innocuous questions can lead to real trouble.
“You share where you were born and when you were born, now I know where to get your birth certificate,” Foley says. “I can take that and get a duplicate Social Security card and with that I can get a driver’s license and with that I can get a passport and with that I can travel anywhere and be you as much as I want.”
Job seekers are understandably eager to make every effort to obtain a new position. But posting a resume that contains personal information on the Internet can be an invitation to identity theft, among other types of scams. Never put your Social Security number, birth date, place of birth or other financial information on your resume. Be wary of scams that use email messages — “We loved your resume, and we need your Social Security number to do a background check so we can hire you,” is one example — to prey on unemployed people.
Many legitimate organizations sponsor sweepstakes lotteries, drawings and giveaways for marketing purposes. But plenty of not-so-legitimate outfits also run these kinds of activities not to hand out freebies, but to collect data that can be used for identity theft crimes.
Be suspicious of offers that seem too good to be true, regardless of how or where they’re presented. That free T-shirt may be a lure to entice you to fill out an application for a credit card that doesn’t exist. Once you complete the application and get the T-shirt, that information is out of your control.
“The people who have been victims of identity theft have lost their sense of trust, and I will tell you maybe that is realistic in today’s world,” Foley says. “You should be questioning things and not (be) so accepting.”