The 21st Century Crook

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We take great measures to protect our physical bodies. We wear seat belts, bike helmets, and wear sunscreen. Some of us go a little further and make regular visits to the doctor and even try to eat healthy. But how many of us are truly serious about protecting our virtual selves. In this day and age, your very identity is the target of the 21st century crook.

There are a number of ways that a crook could obtain your personal information and use it maliciously. The age old method was to go through trash (dumpster diving) looking for names, addresses and social security numbers which could be used to open fraudulent accounts in your good name. If someone breaks into your home they are just as likely to plunder for personal
information as they are for cash and jewelry. Some more tech-minded criminals have created elaborate websites and email campaigns (phishing) which impersonate legitimate credit unions, banks and online merchants. Text messages are yet another realm where scammers have propagated their phony alerts and too-good-to-be- true offers in an attempt to get you to hand over your personal information. White collar crooks may even attempt to impersonate you in order to re-route your mail to their address. (Incidentally, this is why Piedmont CU has so many restrictions on how we can process a change of address.)

What measures can you take to prevent fraud and steer clear of 21st century crooks?

The first thing to do is to make sure that you're not already a victim. Obtain a copy of your personal credit report. The simplest way to do this is to visit www.annualcreditreport.com. I won't go into the details of this right now, but it is pretty easy to do even for the casual computer user. It can also be done via mail.

If you have been a victim of account fraud or identity theft, consider "freezing" your credit report. The credit bureaus usually call this a Security Freeze. This is much more than an alert. A Security Freeze blocks any and all attempts to view your credit report. If you ever have a legitimate need to apply for credit you will have to "thaw" your credit report temporarily in order for a lender like Piedmont CU to obtain a copy.

Double check what information you have shared about yourself online. If you use Facebook, Twitter or other social network services, look into ways to lock them down so that you're not sharing everything about yourself with the world. Be careful about  who you friend & follow. Only interact with people you know that you know.

Speaking of computers, when it comes to suspicious emails don't just click on any old web link. Cyber criminals can mask a hyperlink so that it almost looks legitimate. Inspect the link first by hovering your mouse over it. When you do this it should show the real address. If the real address looks suspicious, DON'T CLICK ON IT. This could be one of those phony sites designed to fool you into giving your personal information away or it may try to infect your computer with spyware. Consider using  advertisement and script blocking tools on your Internet browser. Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome both have free, optional  add-ons which are very effective at blocking ads and malicious scripts. Never input your personal of credit or debit card  information on a website unless you are certain that it is the real business you're engaging with.

Finally, keep your home organized and don't leave confidential information lying around. Its much easier to replace stolen goods than it is to clear up a stolen identity. Consider buying a personal shredder. Use a Safe Deposit Box (We have those!) for your important documents. Using e-statements is actually more secure than receiving them in the mail. Implement just a few of these precautions and you will have taken more steps than most towards shoring up the barriers between you and those who  would probably never want to harm to you physically, but would seek to rob you blind of everything.

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