It's safe to say that there are two types of Americans: Those who've had their identity stolen and those who will have it stolen (or stolen again). In fact, your identity may have been stolen, but the thief hasn't used it yet or is in the process of selling your information.
Signs of identity theft include (but aren't limited to) thinkgs like visible mistakes on monthly billing statements; mistakes on health insurance statements; late arriving bills and statements; bills and collection notices for items and services you did not purchase; calls or letters from debt collectors on debts you do not have; IRS notices that someone used your Social Security number; and the unexpected rejection of checks, loan applications and job applications.
Different forms of identity have different values and life spans for thieves. A credit card has a limited period of value. With theft or use, you, and often the card issuer, are aware of the loss and close the account, replacing it with a new account. Laws protect you from any extreme loss, while it is the bank or card issuer that loses.
Theft of checking account information, including the name on the check, the account number, and the bank routing number can result in direct losses by withdrawal and fraudulent checks. Discovery of this type of loss may not be noticed until after receipt of the bank statement. There can be substantial loss from the account and full recovery is not always possible. As with credit cards, bank accounts can be closed and new accounts opened but often it is too late to avoid losses.
The most serious threat to your identity occurs with theft of a Social Security or Medicare number. Since your Social Security number, and thus your Medicare number, is permanent, the thief is in no rush to use it. The thief can use it immediately, sell it, or save it for future use.
Don't carry either of these forms of identification unless it is absolutely necessary. Keep these cards in a secure location. Check with your medical providers to see if it is absolutely necessary to bring your Medicare card to an appointment. Remember, if you need emergency medical treatment, you cannot be denied service if you do not have your card with you.
Here are some ways to protect yourself from becoming a victim of identity theft:
• Request and review your credit reports from the three nationwide reporting companies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. You have a right to a free report from each company annually. Go online to annualcreditreport.com or call 1-877-322-8228. You may wish to stagger the reports so you receive one every three to four months.
• Closely check your monthly bank, credit card and account statements as well as medical bills and statements.
• Shred all of your outdated and unwanted financial papers. Never simply toss them into the trash or recycle bin. A micro-shredder is best.
• Never provide personal or financial information online or on the phone unless you originate the communication. Legitimate companies and the government do not conduct business this way.
• Your computer passwords should be unique to each account or website requiring one. Mix up letters (and upper/lower case), numbers, and symbols. Don't use words or sequences such as "PASSWORD," "ABCDE," or "12345678."
• When shopping, banking, or transacting any business online, check to see that the website you are using is encrypted. It is if you see "https" leading off the website's URL.
• Install and update your computer software, including the operating system, the web browser, and any anti-virus and anti-spyware software;
• Do not use public computers or Wi-Fi networks to transact business or send information.
Elliott Greenblott is the Vermont coordinator of the AARP Fraud Watch Network. Next time: Fraud and the Internet. The AARP is seeking fraud fighters. Join the AARP Fraud Watch Network and receive watchdog alerts and tips. It's free. Go to aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork or volunteer by calling Vermont AARP at (866) 227-7451.