Protect Against Financial Fraud

April 15, 2008

Let's assume you know about the Nigerian money scam and wouldn't fall for it if it showed up in your e-mail inbox. And that you're aware of "phishing," where scam artists create web sites that mimic bank, brokerage, and even IRS sites to lure you into giving them personal financial information. But those two cons are just the tip of a huge iceberg.

"Love all, trust few."

—William Shakespeare

Let's assume you know about the Nigerian money scam and wouldn't fall for it if it showed up in your e-mail inbox. And that you're aware of "phishing," where scam artists create web sites that mimic bank, brokerage, and even IRS sites to lure you into giving them personal financial information. But those two cons are just the tip of a huge iceberg.

The National Consumers' League lists 27 different swindles on its Internet fraud web page alone. Physicians are particularly enticing targets because scammers assume that they have money and are busy people. So for now, let's just go over some tips to avoid identity theft, which is the fastest-growing crime in the nation, according to the FBI.

• Protect the number—The most important step you can take to avoid identity theft is to guard your Social Security number (SSN) as if it were your life savings, which it could be, if a crook gets hold of it. Do not carry your Social Security card in your wallet and never give out your SSN unless you are absolutely sure about who is asking for it and why they must have it. As of December 2005, states are no longer allowed to use your SSN on your driver's license, but your license may still have your SSN on it if it was issued before that date. Your health insurance carrier may also use it as your ID number. In both cases, you should ask for a substitute number. Never give your SSN over the Internet if you are not totally sure of the recipient. Even official-looking web sites can be frauds (see "phishing" above).

• Watch your mail—Shred any junk mail that could give a thief valuable information, especially unsolicited credit card offers. Better still, get off these mailing lists by calling 888-5-OPT-OUT, the toll-free number that the major credit reporting agencies have set up for consumers who want to get off credit card offer lists. You will have to give your SSN over the phone; if that makes you nervous, you can use the agencies' online form instead.

• Collect incoming mail promptly—Leaving it in your mailbox is an invitation for thieves to steal bank statements or other documents that could have sensitive financial information in them. For the same reason, outgoing mail should be mailed either at the US Post Office or in a official postal service mailbox, not left in your mailbox for the letter carrier to pick up.

• Review your credit report regularly—You are entitled to one free copy of your report a year. You can get your free copy by calling 877-322-8228 or at Annual Credit Report.com. If someone is using your SSN and name fraudulently, it will probably show up on your credit report as loans that you never applied for or credit card accounts that you never opened.

• Act on trouble—Lastly, if you think you're a victim of identity theft, visit the Federal Trade Commission's ID Theft Site or call (877-438-4338) for step-by-step advice about what you should do.

91%—Percentage of Americans who are concerned that their identity might be stolen.(Zogby Poll, 2007)