Chances are good there’s enough information about you online at this very minute that someone so inclined could steal your identity (kick that up to “excellent” if you’re an avid user of social media and don’t have adequate privacy controls in place).
Much of this information was made available before the risk of identity theft became so widespread, and people still don’t know how to tell they’ve been affected. Check these areas of your life and make sure you are the only one in control of your personal and financial information.
The Four General Areas to Watch
The New York Department of Consumer Affairs lists four key areas to watch for any unexpected changes:
- New accounts you don’t recognize on your credit report
- Unexpected charges and withdrawals on any of your financial account statements
- Bills and statements you suddenly stop receiving
- Notices from collection agencies about products or services you didn’t purchase
If you are diligent about watching for these errors, you will spot the majority of issues caused by identity theft. There are other specific things to look for, and it’s good to have a schedule you follow every month just to stay on top of your accounts. The sooner you spot any discrepancies and report them, the easier it is to resolve the problem.
Other Specific Areas to Watch
Review the company profile of an identity theft protection service, and you’ll see the diverse financial areas they monitor. Sometimes (and especially if you have an active and varied financial portfolio), such a service may be your best choice.
If you use paper checks, make sure they are secured. Look through them regularly to make sure none are missing. Verify the cleared checks on your bank statements are sequential. You wouldn’t expect to see the list of cleared checks as 646, 647, 648, 987. This could mean a stolen check was used.
If a credit or debit card suddenly stops working, contact the financial company immediately. This could be a sign someone has used your account to run up several purchases, and your account has been flagged as suspicious. When a retailer tries to run a card, and it doesn’t go through, it’s tempting to give another card to run the transaction, and just write it off as a fluke. Don’t ignore the event—call the bank immediately.
You don’t have the same rights with a brokerage account as you do a bank account or credit card. Read the terms of service to understand your liability, and check on the account every week or once a day, depending on the account’s activity.
Watch for mail your friends receive from you from an unfamiliar address. This signals illegal access to your social media information. Thieves will gather addresses from your account and send phony letters asking for help, usually financial.
Review all correspondence received from a hospital or doctor’s office for charges. Contact the billing office if the statement is hard to understand. Medical identity theft is on the rise and easy to ignore if you don’t question bill charges.
Have a Plan to Prevent Identify Theft
Because your whole life can be affected by identity thieves, create a list of areas to review on a regular basis. You may start with a very long list but will quickly get to only needing a couple of hours each month to check on things, which is better than the months you’ll spend cleaning up an account, should illegal activity go unnoticed.
How do you prepare against identity theft? Tell us in the comments.
About the author: Kevin Chung is an accountant and business consultant with a penchant for muscle cars.