You never think it’ll happen to you.
Until the day it does.
Identity theft. Whether it’s a news story, social media post, or coffee house chitchat, we continue to hear stories almost daily where a fraudster hijacked someone’s identity to access money or get credit. The victim, suddenly under a mountain of debt, faces the daunting task of proving “that wasn’t me!”
What’s worse, identity theft tends to destroy one‘s credit score, making it impossible to get a mortgage, vehicle loan or credit card until you fully resolve the situation—a convoluted process that takes many infuriating hours.
Think you’re not at risk? Well, it’s not just negligent or careless people who have their identity stolen.
Hey, it even happened to me.
In my case, a photocopy of my identity documents was compromised by a hotel administrator. An inside job by a trusted professional. Didn’t see that one coming—would you have?
Having become a victim of identity theft in spite of my exceptionally vigilant nature, I know first-hand the surprise, pain, frustration, and lingering sense of vulnerability that come with being targeted.
And even with my longstanding professional connections in the credit realm as the owner of one of Canada’s top national collection agencies, restoring my own credit and identity proved unbelievably hard to do. It gave me new appreciation for what others must go through.
What’s clear: fraudsters seldom discriminate. Regardless of your age, education, sophistication or income level, you definitely fall within the pool of potential targets for someone looking to steal an identity for their ill-gain.
Seniors are targeted for being trusting, uncertain about technology and sometimes lonely. Millennials can be inexperienced and laid-back about their personal information. Busy parents (or their children) can accidentally discard or expose sensitive information. Unemployed people can have their social assistance stolen or take dangerous risks.
Executives can be especially targeted (sometimes in strategic intrusions known as spear-phishing), where the culprits stake them out on social media and social events to pose as a member of their favourite charity or a litigating business in order to bait them to open spyware in their computer.
Most often it comes down to a crime of opportunity though; usually a matter of how easy is it to access and steal your identity at any given moment.
It’s all very frightening, and knowledge, not fear alone, is our most powerful countermeasure. My hope is that the following information will help educate you, make you that much more aware, and reduce your chances of also falling prey to these criminals.
Much of our lives are wrapped up in a technological world, mainly the Internet, which makes it the natural vector for identity theft schemes, such as skimming, phishing, and hacking. These schemes, together with computer spyware and viruses, help criminals harvest our personal information.
With that said, it’s not surprising the unsophisticated methods of identity theft are sometimes overlooked. Have you ever brought your garbage to the curb, later to find it’s been rifled through—or been shocked by someone popping out of a trash bin? Dumpster diving, mail theft, and credit card or driver’s license replication are common and easy ways to steal identities. These less sophisticated identity theft methods are just as effective and often every bit as damaging as the high-tech traps.
Protect Yourself. Protect Others.
Taking steps to avoid becoming a victim can be time-consuming, but prevention today can save you a lot of fear, frustration and worry in the future. I hope at least one of these 12 sometimes-forgotten-steps may help you avoid becoming a victim of identity theft:
1. Use biometric-protected wallets like Apple Pay, a hardware-secured mobile payment system. Most such apps do not track or log what you’re buying, and transaction information can’t be traced back to you by a third party because one-time authorization tokens are exchanged rather than credit card numbers and security codes. Biometrics like face and fingerprint recognition safeguard against unauthorized use, and your payment information is not shared with vendors.
2. Remove any ID from your wallet or purse that you don't regularly need, and lock them away. Otherwise a single grab can yield a bonanza to an identity thief, and (at best) provide you with hours of calls to providers and government agencies to cancel and replace all you’ve lost—what you remember of it.
3. Swipe or tap your own credit or debit cards on card readers. If you choose to hand over your card for some reason, never lose sight of it even briefly. Near-field communication (NFC) information used by contactless payment cards can be scanned in an instant and later replicated.
4. Distrust email. The one we all know about, but only need to forget once: don’t open suspect emails and never, ever click on any links within such emails. It’s easy to get caught up in the heat of worry over a realistically counterfeit message when your finances are purportedly at risk. Log in to your account by directly keying the URL or call the institution at a number you know to be real—not the one in the suspicious email. Never open any unexpected file attachment, no matter who it appears to be from.
5. Be on guard for phone calls, visits, text messages or emails from strangers asking for your personal information. Never give out your date of birth, bank account number, or other personal information to someone you don’t know, or have not 100% authenticated. A call from the bank or Canada Revenue Agency? Hang up and call the number on that agency’s website.
6. Always question the need for photocopying your license (at hotels, for instance) and offer less invasive means of confirmation. Feel free to leverage my example if anyone plays the “company policy” card. Some policies simply need updating. Copies of your driver’s license circulating amidst organized crime groups is far worse than having to change hotel plans.
7. Don’t throw your ID to the criminals. Avoid putting your personal information into the wrong hands by shredding all private and financial documents (re-read my comment about dumpster diving above) before discarding.
8. Update your info. Let the post office and all relevant financial institutions (your bank and credit card companies) know immediately of any change to your address and contact info.
9. Routinely check your credit reports, bank statements and credit card bills line-by-line. Immediately report anything suspicious to the relevant financial institution and credit bureaus.
10. Get proactive credit alerts. Subscribe to a credit monitoring service, especially if you think your identity might have been compromised. I do this. If anyone tries to secure a loan, credit card or financing on my behalf, I get an immediate heads-up. In Canada, Transunion and Equifax both offer credit monitoring services on a subscription basis. Your credit score affects your future in many ways. Don’t let identity theft mess it up.
11. Security-check websites. Before you provide personal or payment information on a website, watch for the “https” (with an “s” for Secure) or padlock icon in the website’s URL (next to the www address at the top of your browser), indicating the information is encrypted in transit. It is very easy for criminals to anonymously create a realistic looking website clone, but an “https” domain is anchored to a registered business.
Different web browsers display secure URLs differently, so know what you’re looking for. Compare the same secure web page below, in Safari and Google Chrome browsers:
12. Protect PINs and passwords. Never store your credit or debit PINs on or anywhere near the physical cards. Memorize all PINs or securely store them (along with your website passwords) in an encrypted system like Apple’s Keychain, 1Password or LastPass.
Identity thieves are imaginative and highly manipulative. When one scam doesn’t work, they improve it or switch to another. Someone is always waiting for us to be briefly less vigilant in safeguarding our personal information, and they know how to push our buttons to get the information they need.
I encourage you to be proactive and share this article with your family, friends, neighbours and co-workers. You may very well prevent someone else from becoming a victim.
If you believe your identity has been compromised, get help. Contact the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, both national credit bureaus (see #10 above) and your local police. Together we can hinder these fraudsters and reduce everyone’s risk of identity theft.