March 6 - Identity theft complaints rose one spot to the fourth highest consumer complaint in 2012 with 508 complaints, more than double than reported in 2011, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. According to a study by the Federal Trade Commission, more than 250,000 Americans had their identity stolen in 2010, almost 3,000 of them in Wisconsin. Anyone is a potential victim of identity theft, from infants to the elderly. The number one defense against fraud and identity theft is an educated consumer. National Consumer Protection Week, March 3-9, is the perfect time to review how consumers can protect themselves from criminals, cyber or otherwise.
Know what's in your wallet/purse. In the event your purse or wallet is stolen/lost, you should know everything that's in it so you can act quickly to prevent identity theft and fraud. Know which credit cards you need to cancel, and keep photocopies of each card in a safe place. Having these copies will help when you need to know account numbers to cancel the cards. Also be aware of the information on your cell phone. Home, work and bank phone numbers can give potential identity thieves a lot of sensitive information.
Shred anything with sensitive information. Never throw out or recycle documents with personal information on them without shredding them first. Consider switching to e-statements or electronic billing when possible to reduce the amount of paper you'll need to keep track of. If you don't own a shredder, many banks have promotional "shredding days" where customers visit the bank branch and shred their sensitive documents for free. Check with your local financial institutions to see if there's an upcoming "shredding day" near you.
Search for your information online. An identity thief doesn't need to go dumpster diving if you post personal information online. Spend some time trying to break into your own account. Blogs, social media profiles and online resumes are treasure-troves of information for criminals. When creating passwords and updating accounts, remember that most password recovery systems use a "security question" system and then send a new or temporary password to your email account. Information like mother's maiden name, first pet and the street you grew up on are common, so make sure that information isn't readily available online.
What if your identity is stolen?
No matter how careful you are, you or someone you know may still become a victim of identity theft. File a police report as soon as possible, then call your bank and notify them of the situation. Your banker may be able to offer you further advice on how to contain the situation. You can also visit www.ftc.gov/IDtheft for a step-by-step guide on how to recover from identity theft.