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Protecting Your Identity

Protecting Your Identity

FS281E
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Christian Koehler, Grays Harbor County Extension, Washington State University
Identity theft is one of the fastest growing white collar crimes. Regardless of the form it takes, identity thieves need to have at least some of your personally identifiable information. This publication cautions against providing opportunities for thieves to access this information and provides tips and tactics to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft.
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Limit Access to Personal Information

Identity theft is one of the fastest growing white collar crimes. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 17.6 million persons age 16 or older were victims of identity theft in 2014 based on those surveyed, and fewer than 10% of the victims reported the incident to the police (McCarthy 2015).

Regardless of the form it takes, identity thieves need to have at least some of your personally identifiable information (PII). Some common forms of PII include your social security number, credit card and bank accounts, driver’s license, utility and insurance account information, and your user names (logins), passwords, and PINs for all online accounts.

Results from the Bureau of Justice survey indicate that the majority of identity theft victims don’t know how the offender obtained their information, and 9 in 10 identity theft victims didn’t know anything about the offender (McCarthy 2015). Identity thieves can get your personal information in a variety of ways. There are the tried and true methods like taking the mail from your mailbox, picking through your trash, or stealing your handbag or wallet. With available technology, there are many more options for thieves like card skimmers or readers, phishing by phone, text or Internet, or other imposter scams.

You’ll want to avoid opportunities for thieves to access your personal information. Carry only the identification needed. When you can, consider leaving your social security card, extra credit cards, or checkbook locked in a safe place at home rather than taking them with you. Don’t write your account numbers, passwords, or PINs on your cards or slips of paper in your wallet, or sticky notes on your phone, monitor, or tablet. Always password-protect your cell phone.

Credit card skimming occurs when an identity thief attaches a “skimmer” to a credit card reader making it possible for the thief to steal and store credit card information. It’s difficult to detect card skimmers attached to ATMS or point-of-sale (POS) card readers such as gas pumps. In those situations, avoid unstaffed locations, where a card skimmer could be installed and go undetected. Gas stations have until 2020 to replace magnetic strip readers with chip readers before station owners will be responsible for fraudulent purchases made with a chipped card using a strip reader. EMV credit cards with chips are more secure than cards with only magnetic strips.

(EMV stands for Europay, Mastercard, and Visa, the creators of this global standard for cards equipped with computer chips and the technology used to authenticate chip-card transactions.) Choose devices with chip readers whenever possible. Try to handle all transactions without handing your debit or credit card to clerks or wait staff.

Opinions vary regarding the efficacy and need for a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)-blocking wallet, purse, or fabric. Do any of your credit or debit cards have an active RFID chip that’s read without directly accessing the card reader? If not, but you still want to protect against the potential theft of your name and address from your epassport or enhanced driver’s license (EDL), research products before you buy. When tested, many items did not block the RFID skimming devices.

Currently, Medicare cards have the individual’s social security number printed on the front. Although the federal government will begin replacing the social security numbers with other patient identification numbers beginning in 2018, you may want to take steps to protect your social security number until you get your new card. You may want to make a photocopy of your card and blacken all but the last four numbers. If you choose to use this method, you’ll need to carry a government-issued photo ID also.

Protect your incoming and outgoing mail from identity thieves. Use the post office or other secure facility to post your outgoing mail. When possible, consider a locking mailbox attached to your home for incoming mail, or rent a post office box.

Be sure to secure your phone and other electronic devices with a password, PIN, or code, as provided by the manufacturer. Choose added security when available. When selecting a password, don’t use the same one for all of you accounts or devices. Create passwords that are a minimum of eight characters including upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols (when allowed). Do not include your user name, real name, or complete words. Some providers have guidelines associated with password selection specific to their accounts. Password experts suggest converting a sentence into letters, numbers, and symbols. You may choose to use a Password Manager software application to secure your passwords. If so, research the application. Several are available at no cost.

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