Senior Beat

Tips on how to protect yourself from identity theft

By Carol Higgins Taylor

Special to The Weekly

You would probably know pretty quickly if your wallet, purse or car had been stolen.
Upon walking into your house, you could probably tell immediately if it had been burglarized. But how would you know if your identity had been filched and was being used by criminals?

There are several ways to tell if you may have been compromised, including being denied for credit, getting calls from debt collectors and companies you don’t do business with, and getting less mail than usual. This could indicate that someone has filed a change of address on you so now your credit card statements are going to them.

There are steps you can take to protect yourself. David Leach, principal consumer credit examiner at the Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, strongly recommends three basic actions:

— Hang up. If you get a call from someone you don’t know asking for personal information or trying to sell you something, just hang up. Do not engage. The longer you talk the more likely you will slip up. Plus, the longer you stay on the phone, the more calls you may get because you will be tagged as a live wire, according to Leach. The calls may become increasingly aggressive. Seriously, just hang up. Best advice, get an answering machine and screen your calls. People who love you won’t mind.

— Delete. If you see an email from someone you don’t know, delete it. And never open an attachment from someone you don’t know. Get top-of-the-line virus protection on your computer and devices. If a friend emails you an attachment, think twice about opening it if it’s unusual behavior for them. Call the person first and ask if they sent you something. They may have been hacked. I have double checked these things myself.

— Shred. I admitted in this space a couple of months ago that I did not have a shredder. My best friend of 50 years bought me an amazing, cat proof one for my birthday. I use that thing all the time. I shred everything. Shredding is important because in this age of technology, ID thieves can piece together tiny bits of your information to find out all about you. Shred everything.

Conceal personal information in your home, especially if you have lots of company or workers. No need to possibly tempt prying eyes.
Notify the authorities immediately, including your bank, if you think you have been defrauded. Even if you are unsure, call the police, the attorney general or the Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection anyway.

Memorize passwords and PIN numbers that you use all the time. Have a small notebook in your home, tucked away, for the passwords that you don’t use often. Have a different password for every site you visit. Don’t store them online.

Use your debit card as a credit card. The money still comes directly out of your account but you don’t need your PIN number. Also, get creative with passwords. Try using complete sentences when possible because they are easier to remember and I am told harder to crack. Mix it up with symbols, capped letters and numbers.

Leach recommends getting a free annual copy of your credit report. Just call 1-877-322-8228 and order all three at once. When they arrive, check them carefully. If you find inaccuracies in your credit report, act immediately.

“Either directly notify the credit bureau in writing following the instructions provided in the mailing containing your free credit report, or contact our office for assistance of challenging any questionable item or omission,” says Leach.

And Leach has freebies for you. Consumer Protection Publications are free to Maine residents. Call 1-800- 332-8529 and ask for Gone Phishing (anti-scam guide), Elder Financial Protection Guide and the Understanding Credit Reports and Credit Scores booklets. They will be mailed to you. Or you can read PDF versions on the bureau’s website at www.credit.maine.gov.

I have these books and highly recommend them.

Carol Higgins Taylor is an advocate for seniors and owns Bryant Street Public Relations in
Bangor. Email her at seniorbeat@gmail.com .

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