Dr-Fix-It! Notebook Archive:
Identity Theft . . .
According to friends and acquaintances who know my financial habits, I am nearly a fanatic when it comes to guarding my private account numbers. I have almost completely eliminated receiving and sending paper checks in favor of electronic transfers. I couldn't imagine throwing an invoice in the garbage can. No, I carefully shred all paper documents before they go into the recycle bin.
Even at the doctor's office or the insurance agency, I never surrender my Social Security Number without a fight. I constantly remind annoyed nurses and counter people that they are not supposed to use a Social Security Number as an identification number. When fill out forms, I'll either leave the line blank or fill in an obviously phony number like 123-45-6789.
So, I have become one of those people who do most of their business on-line. Call me crazy if you want but I think it is far safer to do business over the Internet than it is to hand a credit card to a waiter, for instance, and watch him walk behind a door to 'process the transaction'. Sadly, even the simple act of holding a credit card in open sight has become a security threat with the advent of cell-phone cameras.
Of course, that means my greatest security vulnerability now centers on the computer in my office. But the first line of defense on today's Internet is a solid measure of skepticism. I don't fall for those stupid alarmist e-mails warning that my 'account is suspended' until I 'confirm my log-in information'. Yah . . . Right. Every day or two, I win yet another Dream Vacation or a Fabulous Grand Prize. Sure. 'Meds', Rolex Watches, Viagra, on and on. Yawn . . . Delete Unopened. I don't download images or html. I don't open attachments. Forget sending me an e-greeting card. Deleted Unopened.
My wife jokes that I exhibit Obsessive-Compulsive behavior about the data on my computer. I use browser and e-mail software that is less prone to attack. At least once a week, I 'scrub' my personal computer: delete all cookies, all history, all auto-complete, any store passwords, all temporary files. That initial wash is followed by scans by three separate anti-spyware programs and two anti-virus scans. Then, I defrag, reboot and change all my passwords. All that at least once a week - sometimes more often.
And, my caution had served me well for several years . . . until two weeks ago.
What finally nailed me was a 'snail-mail' letter from an investment agency with which I had no prior dealings. Never heard of them! It turns out, my employer had changed the agent in charge of our employee retirement fund. The new agency wrote a cheerful letter outlining their services and announcing their 'convenient' web site. Everything an identity thief could want was laid out on a single sheet of paper: full name, complete address, Social Security Number and even the PIN number to get the new 'convenient' on-line account started. That letter was stolen from my mailbox. I didn't expect the letter so I never missed it.
Last week, I received a phone call from a Detective at the Sheriff's Department. He was working on a case of mail theft involving an identity-theft ring. They had caught the mail-snatcher in the act with mail from about 80 households in her car. The Detective wanted me to come down to the station and confirm a letter that he had confiscated was, indeed, mine. 'View the Evidence', he called it.
Seeing that letter was the first I knew of the changes to my retirement fund. Reading that letter for the first time, with my Social Security Number displayed neatly next to my full name and address, gave me the cold realization that my carefully crafted line of defense had a hole in it. I realized the walls to my fort had finally been breached. I was furious. "Who could be so STUPID to print out my name AND my Social Security Number and toss it in the MAIL ? ".
I spent yesterday morning placing a "security freeze" on my credit files with each of the three credit bureaus. A security freeze is supposed to block credit file sharing at the credit bureau. When credit files are frozen, even someone using the correct name, address and corresponding Social Security Number should be denied access to the credit report. Most businesses will not open credit accounts without receiving a consumer's credit history first.
A security freeze also means that my credit files will not be shared with legitimate creditors, insurance companies or potential employers doing background checks. But, if the need arises to apply for credit or insurance or even change jobs, I will have the option to temporary lift the security freeze on my credit files for that reason.
In many states, placing a security freeze is free of charge to anyone who can cite a police report of a theft of their identity. Otherwise, the fee is $10 per request to place a security freeze. The letters go to the following addresses:
Experian Security Freeze
P. O. Box 9554
Allen, TX 75013
Trans Union Security Freeze
P. O. Box 6790
Fullerton, CA 92834-6790
Equifax Security Freeze
P.O. Box 105788
Atlanta, GA 30348
Now, here is the part that galls the living daylights out of me. To place a security freeze, I had to write a letter to each of the three credit bureaus and provide identifying information: full name, current and former addresses for the past five years, Social Security number, date of birth. Of course, it was necessary to sign the letter so the credit bureau would have a copy of my valid signature. Then, against all common sense, toss this information in the mail to an un-named addressee at a PO box.
So, Who would be so STUPID as to print out my name and my Social Security Number and toss it in the MAIL ?
As it turns out, I would . . .