"The greatest fine art of the future will be the making of a comfortable living from a small piece of land."
-Abraham Lincoln

Identity Theft...and More!

Going through our bank statements the other day, my husband came across a charge from his debit card for $200 worth of music downloads from a site of which he had never heard.  Then he began to notice other suspicious activity pending...$20 in Fedex charges, $150 for beauty products from Sephora...all of which we had nothing to do with.
YAY! Identity theft!  

Ok, so we weren't really excited about it...at all.   With those charges going towards our account we were looking at being $20 in the hole and we had a nice mortgage payment coming up not to mention supplies for the kids Halloween costumes and decorations.  
We made an immediate call to the bank and the required trip over.  We were able to get the charge that was already credited to the account (the music download) cleared, the card frozen and we'll have to make several more trips to the bank to get the rest of the charges removed as they clear.   But, at least the bank is working with us and we won't be out any money.  It's only going to cost us some time and some hassle but it could've been worse.  And for that reason I wanted to dedicate this post to giving you tips on how to avoid identity theft and what to do if you find out your identity has been stolen.

Avoiding Identity Theft:
1. Only Make Purchases On Trusted Sites

 Stick with trusted online retailers or smaller sites that use reputable payment processors like PayPal or Google Checkout.  Always, regardless of the site, look for the padlock icon on the bottom of your browser to make sure the site is safe.

2. Order Your Credit Report

The Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, passed by the Federal government in 2003, mandates that each of the major credit bureaus supply consumers with a free copy of their credit report each year. You can get yours at AnnualCreditReport.com (American users only). Your credit report allows you to see whether someone has opened new accounts under your name.
3. Know How To Spot Phishing

Phishing is a technique used by identity thieves to get your sensitive information by pretending to be a site you trust. Phishing schemes are successful because you believe that you're just signing into your bank or credit card account, when it's really a ploy to get your important information. When logging into these accounts, make sure that you're not being asked for any information that you usually wouldn't be required to provide to log in. Social security numbers and addresses are often red flags. Also, check the url of the site. If you're accessing a Bank of America account at a Web address that isn't at bankofamerica.com, it could be a phishing site.

4. Secure Your Network

If you have a wireless network at home or work, make sure that you secure it. A hacker can gain access to anything you do over an unsecured network in a matter of seconds. If you look at the documentation for your wireless router, you'll be able to find out how to lock your router and encrypt your information. It won't affect the way you use your wireless network, but it will keep intruders from getting a hold of your information.

5. Can the Spam

Be very leery of "spam" (or junk e-mail) that works its way into your inbox. Not only are these messages often from phishers, but they can also contain Trojan horses (viruses) that can get into your computer and send your information back to their unsavory creators. If you have the option, install spam-filtering software (or ask your e-mail provider whether it can add spam-filtering to your account). Not only will this cut back on going through your daily pile of junk e-mail, it can also keep your data safe.

6. Don't Store Sensitive Information On Non-Secure Web Sites

As more and more useful Web applications start springing up (like Backpack, Facebook and Google Calendars), it's important to make sure that you're not storing sensitive data on non-secure Web sites. While online calendars, to-do lists and organizers are really useful, make sure that your account numbers and passwords don't make their ways onto these sites, which often aren't protected the same way a banking or brokerage Web site would be.

7. Set Banking Alerts

Many financial institutions are beginning to offer e-mail and text alerts when your accounts reach certain conditions (being near overdraft, or having transactions over $1,000, for example). Setting alerts for your accounts can ensure that you find out about unauthorized access as soon as possible.

8. Don't Reuse Passwords

As tempting as it may be to reuse passwords, it's a really good practice to use a different password for every account you access online. This way, if someone does find out what your password is for one credit card, they won't also be able to access your checking, brokerage and e-mail accounts. It may take a little more organization to use different passwords for each site, but it can help marginalize the effects of unauthorized access to your accounts.

9. Use Optional Security Questions

Like with using different passwords for each account, it's a good idea to set up optional security questions to log into your accounts. Many financial institutions ask security questions that a third party wouldn't know, but you can often set up multiple optional questions that can increase the security of your account. Remember to use questions that don't have answers available by public record. For example, choose questions such as "What was the color of your first car?" over "What city were you born in?"

10. Don't Put Private Information On Public Computers

If you're away from home, make sure not to save private information onto a computer used by the public. If you're accessing a private account at the library or cyber café, make sure to log out completely from your accounts, and never choose to save login information (like your username or password) on these computers.

These days, identity theft has become commonplace, and people are even afraid to use their own personal computers to access any financial information or purchases online. You can do those things without being taken advantage of by making sure that you keep yourself safe online.

Now, What to do if You Become the Victim of Identity Theft (directly from the office of inspector general):

If you suspect that your personal information has been misused to commit fraud or theft, act immediately, and keep a detailed record of your conversations and correspondence. Your first three steps should be:

FIRST, contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus:
Equifax: www.equifax.com

To order your report, call: 1-800-685-1111

or write: P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241

To report fraud, call: 1-800-525-6285

and write: P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241

Experian: www.experian.com

To order your report, call: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742)

or write: P.O. Box 2104, Allen TX 75013

To report fraud, call: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742)

and write: P.O. Box 9532, Allen TX 75013

TransUnion: www.transunion.com

To order your report, call: 800-916-8800

or write: P.O. Box 1000, Chester, PA 19022.

To report fraud, call: 1-800-680-7289

and write: Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790

SECOND, close the accounts that you know or believe have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.

THIRD, file a police report with your local police or the police in the community where the theft took place.

If you become a victim of identity theft involving federal education funds or suspect that your student information have been stolen, contact:
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Inspector General Hotline: e-mail oig.hotline@ed.gov, 1-800-MISUSED (1-800-647-8733)

For more information or to report identity theft that does not involve federal education funds, visit the following sites:

Federal Trade Commission, 1-877-IDTHEFT (1-877-438-4338)

Internal Revenue Service

Social Security Administration, 1-800-269-0271

National White Collar Crime Center, http://www.nw3c.org

Identity Theft is a Crime: Resources from the Government

Our society generates an enormous amount of data. Most users of that information are honest, legitimate businesses. But no one, including students, is immune from being a potential victim of identity theft. The financial and emotional consequences of this crime are long term and long lasting. The information provided in this document gives you a number of steps for safeguarding your personal data, and there are many other resources available on the Internet.

Well there you go.  Arm yourselves with knowledge and be safe out there.