In 2004, 1,831 Utahns reported being victims of identity theft.
The Utah Identity Theft Reporting Information System Web site estimates that only about 33 percent of all victims even report identity theft, which means the actual number of Utah victims could have been more than 5,500 that year. At least 500 of those most likely came from Utah County.
Identity theft occurs when personal information is used for unauthorized purposes. One of the most common types of identity fraud is credit theft. However, check fraud and other forms of fraud are on the rise as well.
While ensuring you are not among the 5,000-plus victims annually in Utah is impossible, here are seven simple things you can do to lower your risk.
1 • Guard your personal information
While there are legitimate times to give out your social security number, they are fewer than you probably think. Employers and financial institutions need them for tax purposes. Other businesses might need your social security number to check credit history, but you should ask why the number is needed and what will be done with your information when the checks are complete.
“Using your social security number is necessary, but you should do all you can to limit who you give it to,” says Travis Clegg, security manager for Utah Community Credit Union. “Never carry your card in your wallet. If someone gets that, they can go to town.”
If a thief obtains a social security number, it could be only a matter of hours before lines of credit are opened and fraudulent charges are accumulated.
Other personal information, like bank and credit card statements, should be carefully guarded. Don’t throw bank receipts away in a public waste bin. Shred personal documents when you don’t need them any longer or store items in a locked part of your house.
“Even if you trust your children, you never know about the friends they bring in the house,” Travis says.
2 • Use checks wisely
Even in today’s technological culture of debit cards and online bill pay, hand-written checks are still occasionally necessary. Be careful with how you use checks and where you store them. Don’t mail bills from your unsecured residential mailbox. Use a mailbox that non-postal workers can’t access.
“A lot of people will drive by and take bills from the mailbox, get the information from the checks and they’re on their way,” Travis says.
Check fraud causes problems for account holders, financial institutions and creditors and is one of the most common types of fraud in Utah County. Write checks only to vendors you trust.
3 • Use credit cards
Credit card companies spend tremendous resources in battling fraud. Because of this, using credit cards gives an additional layer of protection to a consumer.
“With credit cards, it isn’t your money that the thief is spending, it’s the credit card company’s,” Travis says.
Using debit cards is better than writing checks, but there is still a level of personal risk because money is taken out of your account, which means overdrafts could be a concern.
4 • Opt out
The “do not call” list has been getting attention for years, but most financial institutions and credit bureaus also allow individuals to “opt out” of lists sold to third-party vendors.
Individuals can opt out of pre-approved credit offers by calling 888-5-OPT-OUT (888-567-8688). Limiting credit offers also lowers the amount of personal information that needs to be shredded.
5 • Use adequate antivirus and anti-spyware software
Two common forms of information gathering — phishing and pharming — are done through e-mail messages and Web sites.
Phishing occurs when an e-mail from a financial institution — often a counterfeit e-mail posing as if from a legitimate institution — requests personal information be sent for verification of accounts. Pharming is similar, except it asks for information to be typed into a field on a Web site.
“When you give that information, it usually doesn’t take long for them to start doing damage,” Travis says.
Financial institutions won’t ask you to send information like social security numbers in an e-mail message. If you suspect something is fraud, contact your financial institution to discuss the concern.
Antivirus and anti-spyware software will combat these types — and other types — of online fraud. Anti-spyware and anti-adware software can be found for free (try www.spybot.info). Antivirus software usually requires a subscription.
6 • Get annual credit reports
The law allows consumers to receive a free credit history report once a year from each credit bureau. There are three credit bureaus, which means consumers could get a report once every four months. Checking for inaccuracies on this report is crucial to staying on top of identity theft.
“You should recognize the events on the history,” Travis says. “If there are concerns, it’s good to be aware early.”
A free credit report is available at www.annualcreditreport.com.
7 • Be careful
In general, be choosy to whom you give your personal information.
“Fraud is a game of cat-and-mouse,” Travis says. “As consumers become more aware, criminals adapt. We’re a trusting culture [in Utah County], but that’s changing. You should think twice before giving your information out.” UV