In this day and age, the question is no longer whether or not your identity will be stolen – it’s when it will get stolen and how bad the damage will be. The Denver Broncos Cheerleaders found that out the hard way this year when — according to police reports — Christopher Jason Bahl and Gary Dean Crowther allegedly stole mail from the mailbox of a Cheerleaders staff member and discovered a check from the organization. Police say that the two men – and eight other suspects – used the stolen checks to create other, fake checks in order to procure money for methamphetamine.
The suspects in the case were reportedly so accustomed to using stolen identities that, when one of them was injured and transferred by helicopter to a local hospital, he allegedly used a stolen identity to evade both arrest and the hospital bill.
Identity thieves aren’t necessarily always technologically sophisticated criminals, and they don’t necessarily always target victims with a lot to lose. The democratization of technology, the widespread availability of our personal information and our indifference to things as simple as how often we collect our mail or whether to shred documents means that it doesn’t take much time, effort or brains to steal people’s identities.
So what can a person do?
1. Be vigilant.
Check your credit reports regularly, and dispute anything that you don’t recognize. Check your bank statements, your credit card bills, your investment or retirement accounts and even your annual Social Security statements to make sure that all the information is accurate. Never carry around documents, like your birth certificate or Social Security card, that could make it even easier for someone to steal your identity. And (especially with the holiday season), be aware of your surrounds and your belongings when you are out and about – getting pick-pocketed can mean losing much more than the money in your wallet these days.
2. Be careful.
Don’t let mail pile up or papers with personally identifiable information go into the trash can on the curb for anyone to grab. Invest in a shredder, pick up your mail and don’t leave documents lying around where anyone can sneak a peek (or even grab them). And no matter what deal an email or a text message might offer, don’t click suspicious links or give out your personal information to anyone who contacts you asking for it.
3. Be proactive.
If you suspect that you might have been victimized – or might be immediately vulnerable because you lost your cell phone or your wallet – don’t hesitate. Call your cellphone provider, your bank, your credit card companies and any other financial companies that can help you protect your money and lines of credit from thieves. Call at least one of the credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax and TransUnion – to ask that a fraud alert be put on your account, which will make it harder for anyone to open new lines of credit. Check your credit reports for accounts you don’t recognize. (My company, Credit.com, gives consumers their credit scores every month for free; a drop in your credit scores can alert you to possible fraud.) Check your bank account(s) and credit card statements for fraudulent charges and dispute them as soon as they appear.
There is no magic bullet to keeping yourself safe in today’s world, but you can make sure that, if and when you are victimized by identity thieves, you limit both the short- and long-term damage of their actions by limiting their time with your most precious asset – your identity.