Around the clock and around the globe, the information super-highway makes life easier. But it is also convenient for hitch-hiking thieves who steal information to perpetrate fraud. Because of the preponderance of available real estate information, real estate owners make tempting targets.
Identity theft is fastest growing crime in America. According to the Federal Trade Commission, 10 million people were victimized last year, and by 2010 they predict one quarter of all Americans will have been affected. Further, the FTC estimates that once your identity is misused, it takes roughly 16 months and $1,000 to clear your name.
It’s been two years since real estate entrepreneur John Smith’s identity was pirated. One day he noticed unfamiliar charges on his credit card statement. It was the first “charge” in a frustrating battle of disputing bills, writing letters, and debating unsympathetic creditors. Says Smith, “I had a dozen rental properties and a 750 credit score, I could borrow millions-suddenly I was blacklisted!”
Actually, credit card fraud accounts for less than 50% of identity theft incidents. Criminals also steal identities to collect social security, to cash in on tax refunds, even to evade speeding tickets.
Today, Smith takes several preventative measures, (including not allowing me to use his real name for this story.) The more private your personal information, the harder it is for thieves to recreate your identity. To guard against identity theft, consider the following:
Information of Public Record
Most publicly recorded information is available with a mouse click. Almost anyone can find your telephone number, home address, investment property addresses, mortgage balances, housing code violations, tenants’ names, or even which tenants are behind on rent. Alarmingly, most people are unaware of this security breach.
Begin “cleaning” your personal information from the public record by transferring your real estate ownership to a land trust. The land trust replaces your name and address with that of a trustee, thereby hiding your assets.
To remove your phone number from public records, request an unlisted number from the telephone company. When you receive your unlisted number, keep it private. Only disclose your unlisted number to trusted parties, never use it in classified ads, and never dial a company from your unlisted number because it can be captured by caller ID.
Information of Public Domain
Information of public domain is available with little effort. For example, trash set out for pick-up is part of the public domain. In fact, “dumpster diving” is an easy way for thieves and creditors to gather information. For less than $100 you can purchase a paper shredder to destroy pay stubs, financial statements, magazine subscriptions, and other private documents before trashing them. The contents of your mailbox are equally vulnerable, but can be protected by using a secure mailbox or a post office box.
Also public domain is information that you voluntarily divulge. Bumper stickers and other such identifying marks advertise your memberships, children’s schools, and other interests. Remember, the more thieves know about you, the easier it is to recreate and misuse your identity. Another dangerous disclosure occurs in parking garages where keys are held by an attendant. In seconds, your keys can be copied or impressed in soap for later misuse. When such trust is required, leave only your car key, never your house key.
Lost information is also public domain, so hedge your risk by minimizing potential losses. For example, never keep all of your keys on a single key ring, never carry your social security card, carry only one credit card at a time, and password-protect files on portable electronic devices such as cell phones, PDAs, and laptops. To further minimize risk, never sign the back of credit cards, instead write “Photo ID required.” Lastly, photocopy the contents of your wallet or purse and keep the copies in a safe place.
If your wallet or purse is ever stolen or lost, the photocopies offer a record of the stolen contents and quick access to emergency telephone numbers. Immediately close the breached accounts, file a police report (as proof to creditors), and notify the three national credit reporting agencies to place a fraud alert on your name and social security number. The faster you act, the less you will need to undo later.
Information of Corporate Record
Notwithstanding good corporate reputations, disgruntled employees can easily pirate or forward your personal information to dangerous third parties. Limit the information you disclose to companies, refrain from entering contests, signing guest books, and completing forms for freebies. Online, protect yourself against corporate spyware by purchasing spyware protection software and updating it regularly.
Some companies require the use of a password to protect your personal information. Passwords are helpful measures against thieves who pose as company representatives by phone. Your password should be a combination of letters and numbers, with no logical clues such as familiar names, birthdays, anniversaries, phone numbers, addresses, mother’s maiden name, etc.
Even your bank poses security risks. Only order checks with your first initial and last name so identity thieves will not know how to sign. Never have your social security number printed on your checks. And when paying off credit cards by check, never write the complete credit card number on the “memo” line-anyone processing your check will have access to it.
In conclusion, as the risk of identity theft increases on the information super-highway, those who are vigilant will adopt new standards of information safety such as protecting privacy, guarding financial records, and taking swift action to head-off inaccuracies before serious financial damage.