People are often afraid of the unknown. This is true of technology for many people who were not exposed to it throughout their lives. There is a misconception that, by avoiding new technology, computers or the internet, you can protect yourself from identity theft. However, there are just as many risks associated with doing things the low-tech or no-tech way as there are by doing them the tech way. The hardest part is knowing what those risks are and finding solutions to either eliminate or reduce them.
Using snail mail, writing checks, and placing all refuse in the garbage are a few traditional ways of managing finances and household affairs. Below you will learn how these actions can jeopardize your personal information and steps you can take to adapt your habits to protect your identity.
Secure Your Mail and Mailbox
One of the greatest threats is probably the last one you would consider. Most people wouldn't think of their mailbox as a source of vulnerability. But, each day there are groups driving around every city across the nation looking to steal mail. To them, a mailbox is the modern day treasure chest.
For a moment, think about what might be sitting in your mailbox right now. Did you just pay your credit card bill? The envelope probably included your check and possibly your credit card number written in the memo section. Did you raise the red flag on your mailbox to let the mailman know you had outgoing mail? Well, that little red flag is like an “X” on a treasure map. Identity thieves now know the location of your treasure chest and have confirmed it is full.
What about incoming mail? Is a fresh box of checks or your most recent bank or credit card statement sitting in an unlocked mailbox? Both of these are also extremely valuable to an identity thief.
Your best defense is to either buy a United States Postal Service (USPS) approved locking mailbox. You will not be able to send outgoing mail, but incoming documents will be secured. Renting a post office box solves this problem, though. While both of these options are an added expense, they are much cheaper than the time and money that would be lost in the event your identity is stolen.
If neither of these appeal to you, then simply avoid sending and receiving sensitive mail in an unsecured box. If possible, pick up new checks in person from the bank, place outgoing mail in collection boxes or bring it to the post office, or hand it directly to your mail carrier when they arrive at your home.
There is yet another threat to using old-fashioned mail services: mail forwarding. All a criminal has to do is fill out a change of address card at the local post office. Your mail can then be forwarded to any address they choose.
Another option is for the criminal to set up an online account with (USPS) for your address using your identity. Once the account has been established, the criminal can forward your mail and even track the status of your packages. By forwarding your mail, the criminal no longer has to steal it out of your mailbox. They simply wait for it to arrive at their specified destination. This gives them easy access to your bank and credit card statements, your order of new checks, or even your new or replacement credit or debit cards.
To help protect you from fraudulent mail forwarding, the USPS has initiated a “Move Validation Letter” that will be mailed to your old address notifying you of the mail forward request. In other words, if you receive one of these “Move Validation Letters” and you did not initiate such a request, then you will need to contact the USPS immediately. This letter provides an 800 number for you to call to contest the mail forward request.
Another option is to create your own online account with the USPS by visiting https://reg.usps.com/register. Once an account has been established for your address and identity, a thief should not be able to create a duplicate account. If a thief were to attempt to change your account password, you would then receive an email stating that a password request had been initiated. This would be another warning sign of potential fraud.
Prevent Check Washing
Remember that check you wrote to pay your credit card bill that is now sitting in your unlocked mailbox? When a thief steals your check, they could implement a process called “check washing.” This process washes away the ink used to write the payee information in the “pay to” section as well as the dollar amount of the check. This can all be done with damaging the check, and the thief leaves your signature and simply writes in a new payee and dollar amount. The bank recognizes and approves your signature and cashes the check. To make matters worse, the materials needed for check washing are readily available and there are internet videos that demonstrate the process.
Check washing even has the ability to wash away permanent marker. Uniball, a pen manufacturer, claims that the ink in their gel pens or 207 pens cannot be removed by check washing. While I have not personally tested these pens, I have heard from other experts that these claims are true. It just might be worth investing a few dollars in one of these pens as a security precaution if you still write checks.
Thwart Dumpster Divers
Dumpster diving is nothing more than digging through someone’s trash. I am not talking about the large dumpsters from commercial buildings. I am talking about personal trash can that Americans wheel to the end of their driveways on trash day. Thieves know that many people take out their trash the night before, which gives them the perfect opportunity steal it.
You might be thinking, “That is disgusting, why would they want my garbage?” Well, if you are like most people, you probably don’t think twice before throwing away old credit card or bank statements once they have been reconciled. What about receipts and statements you have been holding on to for tax purposes that are no longer needed? Do you dump these in the trash bin? Most people toss empty prescription bottles without giving it a second thought as well.
These are only a few examples of commonly discarded household objects, but stop and think about all the personal information that could be obtained from these items. Bank account numbers, credit card numbers, name, address, type of medication, refill information and the name of your doctor. Your garbage reveals more about you thank you might think, including where you eat, what you eat, where you shop and more. Criminals utilize all of this information to use your identity or learn how to target your personally with a scam.
One of the easiest things you can do to safeguard personal information is invest in a cross-cut or confetti-cut shredder. When deciding what I should shred, I ask myself one simple question: Would I put this document or information on a highway billboard? If not, then it goes in the shredder. This may sound like overkill, but when it comes to identity theft and risk reduction, there is no such thing as overkill.
Remember, just because you might still do things the low-tech or no-tech way, this does not mean that they are without risk. It means that you need to consider all of the risks and try to find ways to either eliminate or reduce the risk to a level that is acceptable to you.