Part I - Prevention
Like many people these days, my life is stored on my computer. From photos to saved emails, my laptop holds everything from both my professional and personal lives. After an unfortunate spillage of water onto the keyboard, I was crushed to have lost all my e-belongings. When debating how to get rid of the useless machine, I met someone in a store who said he would gladly take the laptop "off my hands." I figured this was a lucky encounter, but immediately I was warned by many friends not to hand over the laptop. Even though I had managed to extract some important information before the computer completely stopped working, I was told that someone could still access any account information from online banking, registration, or shopping activity.
It's no surprise that the Federal Trade Commission is concerned about the millions of Americans who are devastated by identity theft every year. With private information now stored on vast, social networks like the Internet, the line between convenience and personal protection is often blurry. It's not just computers, however, but even simpler devices like your mailbox that can fall prey to impostors.
Are You Putting Yourself at Risk? Individuals can steal records from not only your home but from businesses where you are a customer or patient. Most are not afraid to get their hands dirty, either - dumpsters are often a goldmine for bank statements, insurance information, and other personal documents.
Even in the checkout line, someone might be peering over your shoulder memorizing your credit card number. This makes it possible to access account info like social security numbers.
Future consequences include bankruptcy declarations in your name, which can result in being denied jobs, student loans, and housing. Fortunately, there are things you can do to help prevent the financial and emotional crises of identity theft:
1. Keep track of your bank accounts and be alert to any surprise purchases or withdrawals.
2. Change your passwords and collect your mail regularly. If you stop receiving mail, call your post office to make sure someone hasn't signed to have your mail forwarded. If it looks like mail fraud, you should call the U.S. Postal Service Crime Hot Line.
3. Try not to write down your PIN or social security numbers, but if you must, do not carry it on you and consider writing it backwards or in a different order.
4. Tear or shred receipts, applications, and other documents with vital info before throwing them away.
5. No matter how persuasive, do not give your credit card number or personal info to an unsolicited caller.
6. If someone in your family dies, protect any accounts by shredding personal documents and items like unused checks - even deceased individuals can fall victim to identity theft.
7. Report stolen or lost credit cards immediately.
As for myself, I plan to use a professional for safely disposing my laptop, even if it is waterlogged. It's simply not worth taking the risk that someone might ruin the financial and personal reputation I've worked hard for.