Protect Yourself From Fraud And Identity Theft

This week is International Fraud Awareness Week and while yesterday we discussed how you can protect yourself from fraud and identity theft online, today we're going to look at how you can keep your personal information safe when you're away from the computer.

Photo by sh4rp_i.

Shred Sensitive Documents Before Disposal

This is probably the easiest and best thing you can do to make sure your bank statements or credit card statements don't wind up in the hands of anyone unintended. Whether you're afraid of someone going through your rubbish or you just don't like the idea of your credit card statement possibly flying off of the garbage truck and into the street, the best thing to do to fix it is to buy a simple cross-cut shredder.

Depending on how much you need to shred and how many sheets you want to put through it at one time, you can buy one for around $67-$99 at Officeworks. If you need serious shredding capabilities though, you can easily wind up spending over $170 on a larger shredder capable of dicing up a dozen sheets of paper or more. Most of us will only need the ability to shred 8-10 pages or less, so there's no reason to break the bank on a shredder, but having one in your home gives you an easy way to securely dispose of sensitive documents.

Always Keep Important Documents Locked Up

You can't shred everything. You need to keep your tax documents, financial statements, birth certificate and other current sensitive documents somewhere (and definitely don't carry them on your person or in your wallet or purse, where they can be lost or stolen). We're big fans of organising your documents in a filing cabinet and keeping that filing cabinet organised, but it's also important to make sure that filing cabinet has a lock on it.

If the unthinkable happens and your home is robbed, the thief likely won't be interested in lugging out a massive locked filing cabinet just to get what may be inside. Similarly, keeping your filing cabinet locked will discourage friends or family members in your home from poking around in it. It sounds harsh, but half of all identity theft cases involve a family member, neighbour or someone the victim knows and those cases can be more damaging because the culprit has greater access to the victim's personal information.

Extend this to your physical mail as well. Make sure to pick up your mail every day even if you have a locked mailbox and when you send outgoing mail, make sure the sensitive stuff goes into a locked and secured mailbox, if you can. Stealing mail is low-tech, but to a thief looking for your signature and bank account number, all they need is one outgoing bill payment for it to be effective. When possible, switch to electronic statements, automatic cheque deposits and electronic bill-pay to avoid the risk altogether.

Photo by Sam Howzit.

Report Lost Or Stolen Documents, Checks Or Credit Cards Immediately

This may seem like common sense, but one of the most frequent avenues for identity theft is a lost chequebook and to a lesser extent a lost debit or credit card. If you've lost your chequebook, call your bank immediately and ask them to cancel all cheques in that book past the one you last wrote. Avoid carrying your social security card in your purse or wallet in the first place and keep it under lock and key at home. The same applies for your credit cards and debit cards. Keep any you don't use regularly in a safe place and if any go missing, don't keep digging around your house days after you misplaced them hoping they'll "just turn up". Report them missing and get new ones as soon as possible.

Beware Suspicious Phone Calls, Even From Companies You Trust

In the age of the internet, you might think that the cold call is gone forever, but sales calls that try to trick you into signing up for a service or giving out your credit card information are still alive and well. If someone calls asking for payment information for a service they claim you signed up for, don't be afraid to give them the third degree, especially if they claim to call from a company you actually do business with. Banks and credit unions will tell you that they'll never call you and ask you for information that they should have already, like your credit card number, account number or PIN and anyone you've already done business with shouldn't need to reach out to you for information unless they can prove they really need it.

If you get a call that sounds legit, don't give out anything sensitive. If it's a robocall or automated message, call the company's customer service line back and ask them if the message was legit and see what they need. If it's a person, tell them you don't have the information they're requesting and that you'll call the customer service line back later when you do. If they try to pressure you or tell you the issue is time-sensitive, you'll know the truth.

Photo by Jon Phillips.

Be Sceptical, Be Vigilant

Yesterday we discussed how important it is to grow a healthy sense of skepticism about what you see and read on the internet. The same is true offline, although most of us already know that an envelope from a company we've never heard of marked "account info inside/open immediately" is probably an ad or scam trying to get you to send something back and that any telemarketer that calls you to with a "time-sensitive" offer that you won't be allowed to think over and respond to later is probably just out for your money.

Even so, it's important to keep up that healthy skepticism and be vigilant about the security of your sensitive documents and information out here in the real world. The Attorney-General's tips to avoid identity theft are a good place to start, as are the additional resources at the website of the Australian Federal Police. Identity theft and fraud are still more prevalent offline than online, so don't underestimate the importance of making sure your sensitive information is safe and locked up, and that you report anything missing or suspicious as soon as possible.

Do you have any tips to keep your private information private offline that we missed? Share your suggestions in the comments.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski.

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