Be selective about what you carry in your wallet; otherwise, you’re an easy target for identity theft. Use these precautions to help safeguard yourself and your business.

You go to the bank to see about a line of credit to carry your business over a few months until your cash flow improves. Much to your surprise, the bank turns you down because your credit report shows too much outstanding debt.

But you only have one personal credit card and a business credit card, and neither carries a significant balance. However, when the bank shows you the report, you discover creditors listed for accounts that you never opened. Suddenly it hits you — you’re a victim of identity theft. Someone took your name and Social Security number and used them to establish credit accounts and go shopping.

Unlike a thief who breaks into a home or barn to take valuables, identity thieves never have to come in contact with you. That makes these type of thieves much more difficult to catch. Even if caught, punishment can be minimal, depending on state laws. That makes this type of crime rather appealing.

While there’s no central statistic source for identity theft, a General Accounting Office report found that in one year, the number of fraud alerts involving identity theft increased 36 percent at one credit-reporting agency. Another agency reported that its long-term fraud alerts increased 53 percent over a one-year period.

Just what is identity theft? According to a General Accounting Office report, identity theft encompasses a broad range of activities that are based on the fraudulent use of identifying information. Examples include stealing another person’s information like a Social Security number, date of birth or mother’s maiden name to establish credit or take over existing financial accounts. However, you can take steps to protect yourself and your business.

Keep track
Darrell Dunteman, agricultural financial consultant and accountant, is not aware of any of his clients who’ve had their Social Security numbers stolen, but he has had clients whose checking accounts were jeopardized. In one instance, someone used a scanner to scan a legitimate check, then changed the name on the check and tried to cash it. Luckily, a teller at the bank at which the check was drawn  was diligent and caught it before cashing the check.

“There’s entirely too much stuff lying around with personal information on it,” warns Dunteman. And that makes this type of crime easy and appealing.

To protect themselves, Dunteman advises his clients keep control of checks and credit cards, and that they be more careful about giving out personal information such as Social Security numbers, telephone numbers and birthdates.

In addition, make sure you know your banks’ and credit card companies’ policies regarding fraudulent charges. Some require notification of fraud by you within a certain time period to alleviate your liability. Many credit card issuers limit your liability to $50.

Protect your information
Thieves get the information they need through carelessness. According to Linda Foley at the Identity Theft Resource Center in California, thieves commonly gain access to your personal information by pilfering trash cans, stealing your mail or wallet, and listening in on personal conversations in public places. They also might try to trick you into giving out personal information over the phone or via e-mail. Or, they may purchase the information from someone else who stole it.

Credit and loan application forms that you fill out and are kept on file at other businesses are another source for criminals. Some criminals can access personal information by hacking into your computer or other businesses that have your information stored electronically. Even friends, relatives, co-workers or employees who have access to your information may purposely, or accidentally give out those details making you a target.

While you can’t control all potential outlets for you personal information, there are some steps you can take to prevent being a victim.

1. Don’t let your drivers license number be the same as your Social Security number.

2. Don’t carry your Social Security card with you. 

3. Check credit reports from all three credit-reporting agencies at least once a year.

4. Don’t put your Social Security number or drivers license number on your checks.

5. Use a locked mailbox to send and receive mail. If you live in a rural area, check with your post office to see what types of locked mailboxes you can use. If necessary, set up a post office box since it is more secure than a rural mailbox that can’t be locked. Drop off mail directly at the post office or in a U.S. mailbox.

6. Limit the number of credit cards, ATM cards and checks that you carry.

7. Cancel any unused credit accounts.

8. Beware of phone solicitations.

9. Monitor your bank and credit card statements regularly. Immediately report any inaccuracies or questionable transactions.

10. Keep a record of all your credit card account numbers and bank account numbers along with the phone numbers to call to report lost or missing cards, and put this in a secure and safe place.

11. Shred documents, using a cross-cut shredder, that list account numbers and those pre-approved credit applications that have your name and other financial information listed.

If you do become a victim
If you do become a victim, Foley recommends that you contact the credit-reporting agencies to place a fraud alert on your Social Security number. And, file a police report and keep a copy of that report since you will need it later to prove your case to creditors and banks. When you lose or have credit cards or checks taken, contact the issuer immediately to close the account. To add security to your financial accounts, request a password that only you know to gain access to those. 

You also have to be diligent when you work to clear your name. Some companies may require their own paperwork and forms for you to fill out and file, but the Federal Trade Commission has developed an affidavit to help consumers close unauthorized accounts and get rid of wrongful debts. You can obtain a copy of the ID Theft Affidavit and more information at the FTC’s Web site www.consumer.gov/idtheft

By taking these steps, you can work to re-establish your good name, but it may take time.

Kim Watson is a freelance writer in San Antonio, Texas.

Credit reporting agencies

Equifax: www.equifax.com
To
order credit report:
1-800-685-1111
To report fraud: 1-800-525-6285

Experian: www.experian.com
To
order credit report or report fraud: 1-888-397-3742

Trans Union: www.tuc.com
To order credit report: 1-800-916-8800
To report fraud: 1-800-680-7289

Federal Trade Commission hotline to file complaint for identity theft: (877)-438-4338 www.consumer.gov/idtheft

Identity Theft Resource Center:
http://www.idtheftcenter.org