Protecting your identity: How to take steps to ensure your personal information is protected Featured

12:16pm EDT October 25, 2011
Protecting your identity: How to take steps to ensure your personal information is protected

As a business owner or executive, you know that it’s important to protect your organization from fraud loss risk. However, you may be less aware of the need to protect your individual risks, including personal identity theft.

“Identity thieves use your personal information to commit financial fraud, such as accessing your existing accounts and opening new ones, and sometimes even renting apartments or obtaining health care services in your name,” says Donna Petz, senior vice president, director of Bank Insurance and Compliance at Associated Bank.

Smart Business spoke with Petz about how to protect your personal information.

Why should business owners be concerned about identity theft?

According to a report by Javelin Strategy & Research, 8.1 million U.S. adults were victims of identity fraud in 2010. One of the major contributing factors is that there is so much personal data being collected, even by services that are unrelated to your finances. For example, when you apply for cable service, the company may ask you for your Social Security number. Then, not only is the primary service provider storing the information, it is often disclosing it to third parties that may be supplying services to your provider.

As a result, it’s difficult to know where your personal data reside, whether they have been sold or traded — legally or illegally — and what kinds of compromising situations you may be exposed to.

How can social media sites prove a risk to personal data?

Social networking sites are, by nature, open. People post their full names, where they live and work, where they were born and dates of birth. And that information can be extremely valuable to a potential identity thief.

Understand the privacy settings on social networking sites and be aware of what family and friends may be posting about you on their pages. Once private information about you is out on the Internet, it is impossible to retrieve it.

How can you reduce the risk of identity theft?

Be vigilant about protecting your financial information and monitoring your accounts, because identity theft often occurs weeks or months before the victim becomes aware of it. For example, you may not know someone has opened new accounts in your name until you apply for credit and are denied. Or suspicious charges may show up on your accounts. There can be a significant amount of financial damage done between when your data is breached and when you discover it.

What other steps can you take?

  • Be careful who you are dealing with and disclose only necessary information. If someone asks for your Social Security number, ask why and whether there is an alternative method of identification.
  • Never respond to unsolicited requests for personal financial information. Your bank will never contact you to request your Social Security number, account number or password.
  • Monitor financial accounts and use electronic statements to reduce the risk of mail theft.
  • Use strong passwords and don’t store them on or near your computer.
  • Shred documents that contain sensitive information.
  • Don’t carry your Social Security number with you, and don’t write your PIN on your debit card.
  • Request your free annual credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com, and monitor it.
  • Consider using a third-party service to monitor your financial footprint. Find a service that continually monitors the credit reporting bureaus and public records data and also checks for underground activities, such as when personal information is being bought, traded or sold through covert channels. Such services should also include daily credit monitoring, credit/debit card and Social Security number Internet fraud monitoring and identity theft insurance.

How can smart phones pose identity theft risks?

Mobile phone technology has advanced at a rapid pace. People rely on them for constant contact with their businesses and families, schedules, tasks contacts and e-mail. And the device may contain as much personal information as your laptop or desktop but lack the security controls that computers offer.

Lock the screen with a password, avoid storing sensitive information in an easily readable form, use the phone’s security settings and encryption capabilities, and treat the phone as you would any personal information. Also, take advantage of applications that allow you to lock down a lost or stolen phone so that it can’t be used and data on the phone cannot be accessed.

What if, despite all these precautions, you become a victim of identity theft?

If you become a victim, or suspect you’ve become a victim, the first step is to notify your creditors and financial institutions, both by phone and in writing, that your accounts have been used without your permission. Request new credit cards and account numbers for accounts that may have been breached.

Second, notify the police and provide documentation. Also notify the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov/idtheft and contact the fraud units of the three credit reporting agencies: TransUnion Credit Services, www.transunion.com; Equifax Credit Services, www.equifax.com; and Experian Credit Services, www.experian.com.

Your first line of defense is to prevent identity theft by securing and monitoring your personal information. But if you suspect identity theft, report it immediately. The sooner accounts can be closed and fraud alerts posted, the quicker the issue can be resolved.

Deposit and loan products are offered by Associated Bank, N.A., Member FDIC and Associated Banc-Corp. Loans subject to credit approval. Equal Opportunity Lender.

Donna Petz is senior vice president, director of Bank Insurance and Compliance at Associated Financial Group. Reach her at (312) 861-5306 or donna.petz@associatedfinancialgroup.com.