Privacy and Identity Theft

Credit cards and electronic checks are great.  You can buy something over the phone and just rattle off your credit card (or your checking account) number and the person on the other end of the line will send it right to you.  It’s a great world, when you can buy the things that you need, without leaving your house. The salesperson doesn’t even need to see you face-to-face. 

Unfortunately, this also means that somebody who is NOT you can do the same thing, as long as they can give the salesperson YOUR numbers.  This is because there are folks who spend their time trying to find everyone else’s numbers. 

So, how can you make sure that YOUR numbers (Credit card, checking account, social security, etc.) stay hidden from the bad guys?  The easiest way would be to hold on to your information and never give it to anyone.  This will make sure that nobody has your private information.  However, it will also make sure that nobody will give you a credit card, bank loan, car loan, or let you open any utilities. So, how do you give your personal only to the right people? And, how do you make sure that it doesn’t get shared with anyone else?

If you have any questions about this (or any other) issue; or would like to speak with a counselor, please send an e-mail to [email protected] .  We will put you in touch with a counselor and help you the best way we can!

Companies can share your personal information

Once you give your personal information to a company that you want to do business with, it may very well be passed around.  Who can share my information, you ask?  Take a look at this table that shows several everyday activities where your personal information is at-risk of being shared with somebody that you don’t know, don’t do business with, and don’t want to do business with.

Activity   How your personal information is shared
Visiting the Doctor   The form that you sign for the Doctor often includes a clause that gives her permission to share your address and name with companies that want to try to sell you medical products.
Getting a new Driver’s License; or Signing up for a medical card or other monthly benefits   In Ohio, information that you give to the BMV (Bureau of Motor Vehicles), or many other agencies is a public record and is given to anybody who asks for it
Signing Junior up to go to College   Public Colleges in Ohio sell students contact information to credit card companies all the time.  It’s legal and could spell trouble for your child, if they don’t realize how having the wrong credit card can be a bad thing.
Having a credit report   The penalties that the credit reporting agencies face for releasing your information to the wrong party are not stiff enough to prevent them from sharing your information with plenty of companies, for a price
Internet Data-miners   There are companies who trace internet users and make a list of the websites that they visit and the items that they look at to buy.  Ever wonder why you get a flier in the mail that is for the same kind of outfit that you were looking at online? This is why. They are able to collect your name, address and shopping habits without even asking.

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How to keep your information private and prevent identity theft

1. Ask them to keep it private: ask the folks you do business with: “What do I have to do to prevent you from sharing my information?”  Some will tell you that you can’t stop it (like the Government agencies you deal with).  But, you may be able to prevent some information sharing.

2. Shred your bills: You should make a habit of shredding (or ripping into small pieces) the parts of your bills that you throw away.  This is true for a lot of mail that you get that does not contain a bill, as well.  You should also shred (or rip up) anything that you get that has some of your personal information inside (an Explanation of benefits from your insurance company; a solicitation for a credit card; checks for a credit card that you already have; informational letters from your employer; stubs from your paycheck, etc.).  Even though it seems silly that someone might go through your garbage, it happens and it can be devastating. 

3. Watch your credit card’s monthly statement for bogus/unfamiliar charges: You should look at every single charge on the monthly statement that comes for your credit card.  If there is a charge that you don’t recognize (no matter how small it is), you should call the credit card company (or the vendor, if their number is listed on your bill) right away.  Thieves often run a small charge through for a stolen card the first month, so nobody notices. The next month (when they put through a charge for a large amount) no red flags go up, because the small charge that you didn’t notice on last month’s bill was paid.  

4. Don’t write your whole credit card number or Social Security number on your checks: Most bills say that you should put your account number on your check. But, remember: you only need to put down the last four digits.  That is plenty of information for them to recognize which account the check is for.  The same thing is true for anyone who asks for your Social Security Number. Try only giving them the last four digits.

5. Don’t give anyone on the phone private information, unless you started the call: Unless you start the call yourself, you can’t be sure that the person on the other end is really working for the company that they say.  If you feel like you really have to give them your number, ask for their number and call them back. (But here’s a trick – don’t ask for a ‘direct dial’ number.  Ask for the main switchboard and make sure that the company name is given out when you call back).  If you ask this question and the person on the line hesitates, or refuses to give you a number to call back….hang up!

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Ways you can spot Identity theft

Identity theft happens when somebody gets personal information about you that allows them to open up an account, buy services, or take out money by using your name.  When the thief doesn’t pay them back, the seller will come to you for the money.  Sometimes, the scheme will include trying to keep you in the dark about the fact that someone is using your name and identity to make money.  This is why you should pay extra attention.  If any one of the following things happens, you might be the victim of identity theft.  If that’s the case, you should get a copy of your credit report right away to make sure that you recognize all of the bills and companies that are listed.  If you receive:

  • Bills for medical services that you did not have;
  • Letters (or phone calls) from debt collectors for bills that are not yours;
  • Letters, bills or calls for one of your minor children (this could mean that someone is using your child’s name to obtain credit);
  • Bogus accounts on your credit card bill or your credit report;
  • Your check is not accepted at a store where you have never had a problem;
  • You are turned down for a loan that you should be getting.

If any one of these things happens, if could mean that your Identity is being used by someone else.  Get your Credit Report right away and see if there is any activity that looks like it wasn’t done by you. 

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Protecting Yourself Online

Just as there are thieves who are trying to get ahold of your personal information through your paper bills and such, there are others who try to get information off of your computer.  You can’t stop all of them. But, you can make it harder for them and do your best to stay protected.  Here are a few simple rules to keep your personal information safe, while you are online:

Do not surf the web without some type of anti-virus protection: there are many brands to buy and the initial cost may seem a bit steep. ($50 for a year is pretty standard). But, if this protects you from just one hacker, it’s well worth it.  Your computer will still reach the web, without anti-virus protection. But, you should think that anti-virus software is as important to your computer as electricity.  Without anti-virus software, someone can do any one of these:

  • Send e-mails from your account to all of your friends and scam them;
  • Look at everything on your computer;
  • Steal any passwords and account numbers that you have stored there;
  • Even monitor which sites you go to and get a copy of each account number that you punch in to pay a bill or buy something. 

To put it another way: No anti-virus software = YIKES!

Do not use your credit card or check # to buy things on a public network: If you are at the coffee shop or the library (or any other network, other than the one in your house with a wire that goes into the wall) you should not access any of your online accounts or buy anything.  That person sitting across the room who looks like he’s lost in the paper could be hacking into the wireless account and stealing your information. Wait until you get home!

If you do buy stuff online, log out and log back on, right after the purchase: Even if you’re at home, after you finish any transaction where you have to punch in your account information, get into the habit of logging off as soon as you are done with the transaction.  It is possible for your information to be accessible to hackers, if you stay online – even if you go to another site. 

Enable the ‘In-Private Browsing’ tool on your internet search engine: Every search engine has the ability to let you surf the net ‘In Private’.  This will make it nearly impossible for websites to gather information about your surfing habits.  It’s usually in the ‘Tools’ section of your taskbar and will not stop you from being able to surf the web.

Research any vendor or company you’ve never dealt with: You used the net to find that great deal; now use the net to see if that awesome deal for a Fifty Dollar fur coat is really legit.  There are a host of websites that exist to let consumers see for themselves whether that ‘Great deal!’ is really so great.  Here’s a few:

  • Ripoff report: 

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What’s the Law?

  • Ohio has a law called the Credit Freeze Act.  You can use it to make sure that nobody uses your name or social security number to open an account:
  • The credit reporting agencies have to let you put a “freeze” on your credit report, to stop anybody from opening credit or from obtaining loans or services, without your permission.

Protect Yourself

  • Get anti-virus software for your computer;
  • Check your monthly credit card statement for unfamiliar charges;
  • Shred (or rip up) any paper that you have at home with personal information on it;
  • You wouldn’t give a stranger cash to hold, right?   Don’t give anybody who called you any account information or your Social Security Number.