Many routine transactions require people to share private data such as bank and credit card account numbers, income, Social Security number, and name, address and phone numbers. Criminals can steal this information and assume your identity by applying for credit cards or opening accounts under your name.
The offender can run up huge bills, deceive the creditors and ruin your credit history in the process. You may not know what is happening for months or even years.
There is no foolproof way to guarantee your personal information is secure, but there are ways to help reduce the risk.
* Be careful about giving out personal information to anyone over the phone or on the Internet unless you know the organization you are dealing with.
* While traveling, have your mail held at your local post office or ask someone you trust to collect and keep it until you return.
* Password-protect your credit cards and checking accounts, then keep the information in a secure place -- not in your purse or wallet. Also, beware of thieves looking over your shoulder as you enter information at an ATM machine.
* Order your credit reports twice a year from each of the three national credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and Trans Union. Review them carefully for anything that appears deceitful.
* Shred all paperwork you no longer need, such as receipts, bills and other documents that contain personal/financial information. Sign all new credit cards immediately and destroy pre-approved credit card offers before throwing them in the trash.
* Monitor your bills, bank records and credit card statements each month. Check for suspicious entries or purchases. If your bills do not arrive according to your billing cycles, follow up with your creditors and utility companies.
Also consider your relationship with your bank and how well you know its procedures. Would it call you if something seemed suspicious? And, find out if it sells lists, as well as whether it shreds unwanted documents or merely throws them in the trash.
Maintaining a close connection with your financial institution can substantially help you keep a closer eye on the distribution of your personal data.
Even if you have been cautious about giving out your private information, an identity thief can still attack. If you suspect you're a victim of identification fraud, follow these guidelines.
1. Call the fraud departments of all three credit bureaus. Ask them to put a "fraud alert" on your file. This forces creditors to call you before they open any more accounts in your name.
2. Contact the creditors which opened the fraudulent accounts and close them immediately.
3. File a report with the local police and request a copy. Having a police report can help clear any possible credit problems due to the unauthorized accounts.
4. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Call the Identity Theft Hotline at (877) IDTHEFT or fill out the complaint form at www.consumer.gov/idtheft/. You can also write to Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C. 20580.
With so many ways ID thieves can retrieve your personal information, it is imperative to monitor what you disclose, when you disclose it, why you're doing it and to whom you are giving the information. Help us help protect you.
Faye T. Pantazelos is president and CEO of New Century Bank and its parent company, NCB Holdings Inc. She founded NCB Holdings, which provides corporate banking services, in 1997. Reach her at (312) 944-5400 or www.newcenturybk.com