By Robyn A. Friedman
Have you been a victim of identity theft? If not, then you’re one of the lucky ones.
Identity theft tops the list of consumer complaints reported to the Federal Trade Commission every year, and Florida is its epicenter, with the highest per capita rate of reported identity theft complaints, followed by Georgia and California.
“It isn’t as bad as people think – it’s far worse,” says Steve Weisman, a senior lecturer at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., and author of Identity Theft Alert: 10 Rules You Must Follow to Protect Yourself From America’s #1 Crime. “Identity theft can affect people’s ability to get credit, a mortgage, a job or insurance. It can even affect the kind of medical care you get due to medical identity theft.”
Identity theft can be perpetrated by low-tech methods such as purse snatching, dumpster diving or stealing mail from a mailbox. Higher-tech methods such as phishing emails or using software called spyware are also common. Forty-seven percent of complaints are from people 50 and over, with the number of complaints by those 70 and over rising from 7 percent of total complaints in 2011 to 11 percent in 2013.
So what’s a consumer to do?
Be vigilant with your Social Security number. Physicians often ask for a social security number from their patients, for example, but author Steve Weisman suggests you offer an alternative form of identification such as a driver’s license.
Create secure passwords. Avoid using passwords that can be easily guessed, such as birthdays or pet names, and use different passwords for every account. Similarly, use creative responses to security questions so that hackers can’t easily
Install proper firewalls and anti-virus software on your computers.
Be careful what you download. Obtain apps from legitimate sources such as Apple’s App Store or Google Play.
Password-protect your smartphone, tablets and other mobile devices.
Limit the personal information you use on your social media sites, such as your birthday, age or place of birth.
Shred any documents that contain personal information, as well as credit-card offers.
Check with your homeowners insurance company to see if it offers identity-theft protection. If it’s not already included, you may be able to add it for an additional charge.