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Identity Theft Basics

Identity theft can occur in a number of ways; card skimmers, online scams, dumpster diving, 19th century cockney children pickpockets (a la Oliver Twist).  I swear, those little British kids will dance a jig and rob you just like that. That may not be true but, regardless of the method, there are some simple measures you can take to avoid being a victim of identity theft. 

Here are some of the more prevalent methods that criminals will use to steal your identity, along with ways to protect yourself.

Card skimmers: A device is placed over an ATM, credit card scanner, gas pump, or anywhere else where a credit or debit card can be swiped.  It looks like an ordinary scanner, but beware.  The device collects your private information, and the criminal is able to use that to access your accounts.

  • Protection: Inspect the card swiping device/location for anything suspicious before swiping your card.  There may be loose wires or plastic.  Sometimes the color of the device may not match the rest of the machine.  Give the card swiping area a jiggle to make sure it is solid.  The fake ones are usually kept loose for easy removal by the criminal who installed it.  If you see any of these signs, do not put your card in the machine.

Cameras: Card skimmers may also be accompanied by a camera pointed at the keypad.  This is so they can see you punch in your pin number.

  • Protection: Be sure to cover up the keypad area with your free hand while you enter your pin number.  You should do this all the time, as there could be an actual person trying to sneak a peek as well.

Dumpster Diving: Criminals may dig through your trash to obtain personal information that will help them gain access to your bank accounts.

  • Protection: Shred all mail, cards, and documents that contain personal information like account numbers, social security numbers, signatures, pin numbers, etc.  You can purchase a shredder to do this, but a less expensive option is shredding scissors.

Lost Wallet: Little explanation is necessary.  If your wallet or purse is lost or stolen (possibly by a little cockney pickpocket), a criminal has a lot of information that they can use to take your money.

  • Protection: First, do not carry around important documents like your social security card or birth certificate.  Keep them in a safe place.  You should keep a list of everything that you do have in your wallet.  Then you’ll know exactly what you’ve lost rather than trying to remember.  You should also keep the phone numbers of all your creditors and banks.  Call them all as soon as possible to report your cards stolen.  They will be able to freeze the accounts, and track the location if someone tries to use them.

Phishing: This is one of the more frequent online scams.  A criminal will send you an email claiming to be a representative from your bank or credit card company.  It will look very official, and they’ll ask you to give them some personal information like your social security number or pin number for some made-up reason.

  • Protection: Do not give them any private information. These companies will never ask for such information in this way.  If you suspect something is amiss, call the company directly at their published phone number to inquire about any changes or information that they need from you.  Sometimes they’ll also ask you to click on an unfamiliar link to another site, but don’t.  Such links can install dangerous viruses on your computer that can track your keystrokes and steal your passwords and personal information.

These are just a few common ways criminals will try to steal your identity.  Be careful to whom you give your personal information, destroy your personal documents and old cards before disposal, and be mindful of your surroundings.  Another general method for protecting yourself against identity theft is to check your credit report regularly.  You’ll be able to see any unauthorized activity or mistaken information and request an investigation.  Get your free credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com.

If you have some other strategies to defend yourself from identity theft, please share in the comments.


Andi is a Marketing Assistant at ACCC. He is passionate about supporting financial literacy efforts and helping to educate people on the Talking Cents blog!

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