Christmas, a Season of Giving – and Sometimes (Sadly) Taking.
Christmas has always been one of my most favorite seasons, a time when we can experience one of our greatest of joys – giving to others through donations and volunteering.
It’s a time when buying a present for the Christmas Effort, or donating to our Food Bank’s annual fund drive means as much – or more – than any present we could ever receive.
Unfortunately, some people use the holidays as an opportunity to take advantage of our goodwill and steal from us.
One of the most common crimes during the holiday season is identity theft. Identity theft – or identity fraud – occurs when a criminal uses a victim's identity for financial gain or to conceal the criminal’s real identity.
With just a few pieces of information like your Social Security number (SSN), your date of birth, or even sometimes just your address and telephone number, a thief can pretend to be you.
Identity thieves can use your good name to open new credit card accounts, access your current bank accounts, rent a house or apartment, establish utility accounts, and even obtain a job. And, while identify theft occurs quickly, it can take years of hard work to reverse.
Here in Ukiah, identity theft happens most often as a result of car burglaries, mail theft, online scams and email scams.
A disturbing new trend in Ukiah involves having a purse or wallet stolen from a car. These burglaries occur in store parking lots, especially when victims leave their purse or wallet in plain sight. While replacing a damaged car window may be frustrating and expensive, repairing your credit rating or re-establishing your identity after having your driver’s license, social security card, or checkbook stolen, can be much worse.
Another new trend we’ve investigated recently is the theft of mail from mailboxes. Thieves steal mail to obtain personal identifying information, then use that information (bank statements, mortgage statements, or other personal data) to obtain fraudulent credit cards or open new accounts. To counteract this, most companies offer pay online options and allow consumers to sign-up for online statements. These services can help protect your valuable personal information from landing in the wrong hands.
Craig’s List and Other Online Marketplaces:
Online marketplaces and bulletin boards like Craig’s List have recently been described as “robbery by appointment.” Thieves advertise a house for rent to solicit personal information, which can then be used to steal your identity. Before utilizing a service from an online vendor, be sure the vendor is legitimate.
Common Tips to Prevent Identity Theft
There are steps you can take to make it more difficult for these thieves to obtain your personal information. According to the Federal Trade Commission, the tips below can help protect you. For more information, visit www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0272-how-keep-your-personal-information-secure.
- Do not give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you initiated the contact or are sure you know who you are dealing with. Identity thieves may pose as representatives of banks or government agencies to get you to reveal your SSN, mother's maiden name, account numbers, and other identifying information.
- Keep personal information in a secure location in your home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help, or have people working in your home.
- Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office, rather than in an unsecured mailbox. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox. If you are planning to be away from home and cannot pick up your mail, call the U.S. Postal Service at 1-800-275-8777 to request a vacation hold.
- To thwart an identity thief who may pick through your trash or recycling bins to capture your personal information, tear or shred your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, expired charge cards that you are discarding, and credit offers you get in the mail. If you do not use the pre-screened credit card offers you receive in the mail, you can opt out by calling 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567- 8688).
- Carry only the identification information and the number of credit or debit cards that you will actually need.
- Place passwords on your credit card, bank and phone accounts. Avoid using easily obtainable information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers. When opening new accounts, you may find that many businesses still have a line on their applications for your mother's maiden name. Use a password instead.
- Ask about information security procedures in your workplace or at businesses, doctor's offices, or other institutions that collect identifying information from you. Find out who has access to your personal information and verify that it is handled securely. Ask about disposal procedures for those records as well.
- Give your SSN only when necessary. Ask to use other types of identifiers when possible. If your health insurance company uses your SSN as your account number, ask to substitute another number.
- Pay attention to your billing cycles. Follow up with creditors if your bills do not arrive on time. A missing bill could mean an identity thief has taken over your account and changed your billing address to cover his tracks.
- Be wary of promotional scams. Identity thieves may use phony offers to get you to give them your personal information.
- Keep your purse or wallet in a safe place at work, as well as any copies of administrative forms that contain sensitive personal information.
- Cancel all unused credit accounts.
- When ordering new checks, pick them up at the bank, rather than having them sent to your home mailbox.
Although these are all great tips, the simplest way to protect yourself against identity theft is to limit the amount of confidential information you carry in your wallet.
What Not to Carry
- Bank account numbers
- Personal identification numbers (PINs)
- Birth certificates
- Social Security cards
Remember, anyone can have their identity stolen. The experience can be intrusive and disturbing. This Christmas, watch out for those who want to use your good credit to purchase their gifts.
As always, our mission at UPD is simple: to make Ukiah as safe as possible. If you have any suggestions or comments about how we can improve, please feel free to call me, complete our online survey, or leave a crime tip on our website: www.ukiahpolice.com.