It was mid-September 2013 when I received a call from a longtime colleague, then an employee in LifeLock’s communications department, asking me if I wanted to take on a new project: a book on the topic of identity theft. As an independent writer, I was excited at the concept of a new gig and wanted to hear more. We met for coffee and I signed on, having no idea what I was in for.
As a classically trained journalist, I’ve enjoyed diving into topics ranging from hard news and crime to complex business topics, health and travel. But never identity theft. Up until last fall, I thought identity theft was something that happened when someone’s credit card was stolen. Annoying, yes, but not exactly life-altering.
The learning begins
The deadline for this project was very short, so I got to work immediately, suspending some of my regular clients and hiring a research assistant. For the next four months, I worked day and night to learn everything I could about the topic. I sought out victims of the crime, meeting them in person and talking with them on the phone. It didn’t take long for me to begin to understand the severity of the topic and the widespread devastation it causes millions of people every day.
Victims’ stories were devastating. Each of them recounted painful tales, in heartbreaking detail, as to how their lives would never be the same. Hearing these stories caused me to have nightmares, but nothing compared to what they had gone through.
Wanting to get the other side of the story, I visited federal prisons and met with convicted identity thieves. I also spoke with Michael Sabo (page 10), a notorious conman who’d spent more than a decade in prison for his elaborate identity theft schemes. Speaking with people on both sides gave me a fuller picture of the crime, how it has grown over time and what we can all do to help protect ourselves.
Here are some of the top takeaways I tell everyone I know and love:
1. Protect your kids
Contact the Social Security office in your home state to see if you can put a freeze on your child’s Social Security Number. Laws vary by states, but many will allow such a freeze. If you are not able to do this, be very careful with your child’s number and only give it out when absolutely necessary.
2. Lock your mailbox
I’ll never forget sitting across from a convicted identity thief in a prison cell and asking him for his top piece of advice on how to protect one’s identity.
“Lock your mailbox. Seriously, mailboxes are the lowest hanging fruit. For years, I’ve paid a few teenagers to raid mailboxes in neighborhoods and stuff mail into a few trash bags. It takes 10 minutes to go through an entire subdivision. They come back to me, I give them $50 and then I go through each piece of mail.
“If a mailbox is locked, we skip it. We look for the easiest information we can get. With just a credit card application or utility bill, we can usually hack a person’s identity. Even better if we can get their W-2 around tax time.”
3. Check your credit card online daily & use your debit card sparingly
Yes, credit card regulations are favorable to the consumer, but it is still important to stay on top of your account. In the case of a data breach, criminals will test cards with small withdrawals (sometimes as small as 1 cent). If the charge goes through, they will know the card is active and will usually ring up much heftier charges within hours or days.
Make sure you can verify every charge on your credit card. If anything looks even a little bit fishy, cancel your card and ask for a new one.
Regulations are not as strong for debit cards. If you fail to recognize a fraudulent charge within 60-90 days, in most cases you will be liable for the entirety of the charge. That is why I hardly ever use my debit card anymore. When I do, I make sure the merchant is reputable.
4. Read your EOB
EOB is short for “Explanation of Benefits.” This is the document you get in the mail a few weeks after a visit to the doctor’s office. Most people (myself included, until recently) throw it away upon seeing, in bold letters, “THIS IS NOT A BILL” at the top. These days, I read through every line.
I recommend you do the same. If something doesn’t seem right (like a test that you didn’t have done or a doctor’s visit in a state you’ve never been to), call your insurance company immediately. Every insurance carrier has a team dedicated to medical identity theft cases. These cases can be incredibly dangerous to patients when it comes to misdiagnosis of medical allergies/conditions, etc., so it pays to stay on top of your personal health records.
5. Check your credit score
Visit AnnualCreditReport.com once every 12 months for a free copy of your credit report. This report will tell you if anyone has used your SSN in the past year or if credit cards were taken out in your name.
Note: there are many companies that offer free credit reports, but AnnualCreditReport.com is the only one endorsed by the U.S. government. I recommend forgoing all the others and sticking with this one as it is well regulated and by doing so, under law, your information will not be sold to a third party.
Writing this book felt similar to getting my master’s degree in identity theft and then writing a dissertation for a final grade. But as depressing as the topic is and discouraging as the growth of the crime seems to be, I’ve learned that it doesn’t pay to be paranoid all the time. Instead, I’ve taken what I’ve learned as the realities of the world we live in and have altered my life accordingly.
I will forever lock my mailbox, no matter how inconvenient. I will always check my credit score once a year (sometimes more). I will stay on top of my credit and debit card charges, read every EOB that arrives at my house and recommend every parent I know freeze their child’s SSN. But, I won’t live in constant fear because, in truth, most people are good at heart and are not looking to make a buck at the expense of someone else.
Knowing that, and taking the proper precautions, has caused my nightmares to happily fade away.
Posted by Katie Morell, a San Francisco-based independent journalist specializing in business, travel and human-interest topics. She writes for publications such as Hemispheres, BBC Travel, USA Today, Consumers Digest, American Express OPEN Forum, Diversity Woman, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, among others. Her first book, Stolen Identity: What Anyone With a Name, Birthdate and Social Security Number Needs to Know Now, was released in June 2014. Learn more at www.katiemorell.com.