Avoid Identity Theft
I keep hearing on the news about identity theft. It seems as though it’s quite easy for these criminals to take our identities and rack up huge charges on our credit cards before we even know what is happening. Am I being, as my daughter would say, “a scaredy cat”? Or is this something I should really worry about? And how am I supposed to protect myself? If I was worried about my wedding ring getting stolen, I would put it in a safe – but how can I protect my entire identity?
Thank you for writing in because this is a very important issue. In this case, I don’t think you are being a “scaredy cat”. I think you are being responsible for wanting to take precautions before a problem starts. Too often we are reactive instead of proactive. We wait for something bad to happen before taking steps to prevent it from happening again – but isn’t it better to prevent it in the first place?
The truth is that identity theft is happening everyday. The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre reported that nearly 20,655 Canadians were the victims of identity fraud in 2014. So, yes, it is a real danger.
But, it’s not all bad news! There are some clear, concrete steps you can take to prevent an identity thief from acquiring your personal information and reduce the risk of damage. Here are some of the things you should do –
- Limit the risk – You probably wouldn’t feel comfortable walking down the street with $10,000 in cash in your back pocket, and yet, carrying credit cards all the time is basically the same thing. Only carry what is absolutely necessary in your purse or wallet when you go out. Leave extra credit cards or your Social Insurance Card at home if you don’t need them. This way, if you do lose your wallet, a thief won’t be able to access all of your personal information.It’s also a good idea to keep photocopies of all your important cards under lock and key at home. This will come in handy if something does get stolen and you need to report the credit card numbers to the bank.
- Be computer-cautious – The internet has been a boon for identity thieves. Hackers and cyber criminals are able to get their hands on your personal information with just a few clicks of the mouse. It is absolutely essential that you conduct yourself online in a responsible manner. The first step to doing this is choosing a strong password. Don’t use your birthday or daughter’s name – those are too easy to guess. You need to make a password that is a combination of random letters, symbols and numbers. And don’t tell anybody! Also, only use your credit cards on sites that are reputable and that you trust. Larger companies are more likely to have more intricate security systems that will protect your information than small sites. Look for websites that start with “https://” as the “s” indicates it is a secure site. There are several other symbols that also indicate the security features on a website – learn what they are and look for them.
- Don’t wait to report a theft – If you suspect you have been the victim of identity theft, don’t waste time. Contact the police and file a police report about the suspected crime. Then contact Equifax and Transunion to put a “fraud alert” on your account. Finally, call your credit card issuers to make sure they know what has happened. They will be able to freeze your accounts to prevent any illicit spending. The quicker you take these steps, the less damage will be done.
It’s impossible to eliminate the risk of identity theft completely, Hee Jin. But, I listed just a few easy ways that you can decrease the likelihood of being a victim and limit the damage if you are victimized. If you’d like to learn more about identity theft and how to protect yourself, check out our Identity Theft booklet.
Jeffrey Schwartz is the Executive Director of Consolidated CreditCounseling Services of Canada and President of the Credit Association of Greater Toronto (CAGT).