Protect Your Laptop from Identity Theft while Traveling

DND.jpgI just finished speaking to an amazing group of financial advisors at the Lincoln Financial Group Planning Forum. This is a group of people who take the security of their business information, the privacy of their clients and their own personal data safety very seriously. It was an identity theft prevention speech, but specifically geared to the exceptional amount of identity handled by financial planners. These are people who have to proactively protect physical client files, filing cabinets, computers access, wired and wireless networks, trash, mail, hiring policies (to avoid bringing an identity thief into the company), mobile devices, and many other forms of information vulnerability as part of their everyday job. That is a lot of responsibility, and this group handles it beautifully. But I gave them some advice that turned out to be suspect… Read more

Scrooge’s Top 10 Holiday ID Theft Protection Tips

“Might I have another lump of coal for the fire, Mr. Scrooge?”
-Bob Cratchit (Dickens’ A Christmas Carol)

What in the world do we have to learn from Ebenezer Scrooge about protecting our identities during the busy holiday season?


Scrooge was a miserly old git who wouldn’t share anything – his coal, his wealth, his love. The ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future scared him into realizing that giving generously is what the holidays (and life) are all about. But the ghosts forgot to mention that as he donated his wealth, paid for Tiny Tim’s medical care and purchased gifts for all of London, he should continue to be miserly with his personal information!

Distraction is our worst enemy. During the holidays, in addition to spending more money, we tend to be busier, more stressed-out and less careful than other times of the year. Identity thieves take advantage of our distraction to perform information extraction. In the spirit of Charles Dickens, here are Scrooge’s Top 10 Holiday Prevention Tips:

  • Protect your home. Your greatest risk during the busy-ness is all of the extra people that come into your home. It makes it very easy to pocket a check book that’s on your desk or a brokerage statement in your filing cabinet. We’d all like to believe that the people we know wouldn’t steal from us. Unfortunately, statistics prove that identity theft is committed by someone the victim knows approximately 30-50% of the time.  I recommend that you shred every document you don’t need and purchase a Sentry Safe fire-safe to lock up your valuable identity documents. (No, I don’t make money if you buy a Sentry Safe – good question). These make great gifts for people you care about!
  • Use your credit card. Don’t use checks and don’t use a debit card. When you use either of these forms of payment, the money is drawn directly from your bank account. If fraud does occur, it’s harder to get the money reimbursed and in the meantime, you don’t have the money to spend. When you use a credit card, nothing is withdrawn from your bank account. In addition, credit cards generally give you a longer period (90 days) to catch the fraud before you are held liable. Debit cards generally give you 30 days.
  • Leave your purse in the trunk. For women, take a wallet that fits in your coat pocket and leave your purse in the trunk, or at home. It is too easy to steal a purse (30% of all identity theft) that is sitting at your feet as you pay or have lunch. The very best advice is to take your drivers license and one or two credit cards with you shopping and store them in your front pocket. The chances that you will lose them decreases exponentially as you leave more at home. If you must have a purse, use one that zips and hangs in front of you.
  • Watch your statements. Most forms of holiday identity theft can be caught simply by monitoring your checking, debit and credit card accounts frequently. Remember, the pain of this crime gets much worse if you don’t catch it quickly. By monitoring your financial statements, you will catch credit card and check theft immediately. I recommend that you monitor your accounts online, which is fast, convenient and smart. Even better, sign up for automatic account alerts when any transaction occurs on your account. If you spend $1 at a store, you receive an email notifying you of the purchase. If you receive an email for an amount you didn’t spend – bingo – you’re probably a victim of fraud. Visit your bank online to set up account alerts.
  • Give yourself the gift of Identity Monitoring. It is impossible to track all of the ways our identities are exposed, which is why I use identity monitoring. To learn about the best way to monitor your online identity (credit reports, non-credit loans, cyber attacks, public records, etc.), read my review of identity monitoring services and learn how to save almost 50% on the best service available.
  • Shop on secure websites. Shopping online can be safer for your identity than shopping in person. But you need to make sure you adequately protect your computer, and that you shop on secure websites. Sites with a good reputation (Amazon, Sears, Lands End, Eddie Bauer – names you easily recognize) are a good place to start. When you begin shopping, make sure that the website address in your browser changes from https:\ to https:\ – this lets you know that your private information (name, credit card number, address, phone) will be encrypted so that hackers can’t steal it. Finally, if the Lock symbol appears in the bottom right-hand corner of your browser, click on it and make sure that the security certificate belongs to the store at which you are shopping.
  • Don’t trust your email. There are so many holiday scams by email that you should read everything with an enormous grain of salt. If someone is promising you something for nothing (free gift, free money, etc.), don’t buy it. If they are threatening to close your account if you don’t update information online, don’t buy it. If you don’t know the person on the other end of the email, don’t believe it. Delete it.
  • Be a Scrooge with what you say. Don’t give your credit card number (or Social Security Number) over the phone if someone is within earshot. Be especially careful about what information you give away over your cell phone in public.  When you are typing your PIN into your ATM or the credit card swiper at the store, cover up your fingers so that the person behind you can’t see. There are so many fraud schemes once someone has your PIN I can’t even describe them here.
  • Rotate your credit cards. After the busy holiday shopping season is over, call your credit card company and ask them to issue you a new card (you can tell them that you are concerned that your credit card number was stolen). Make sure they transfer your credit limit to the new account, along with any miles or perks you have attached to that card. Also, make sure than any auto-pay charges set up on your card are transferred to the new card (e.g., if you auto-pay your cell phone bill on your credit card each month, you’ll need to call your cell phone provider and give them the new credit card number). By rotating your credit card in this way, you are making sure that all of the personal data sitting in retail databases is no longer valid. That way, if they lose the credit card number that you used during holiday shopping, it will no longer be valid.
  • Hire an identity theft speaker for your next corporate or association event. Okay, that was a shameless plug for my motivational identity theft speeches, but that’s how I make a difference in this world and I guarantee that educating your organization about identity theft will directly improve your bottom line. Corporate privacy begins with personal privacy. Blue Cross, Pfizer, The Federal Reserve Bank, Prudential Real Estate, AIG, AARP and my other recent clients agree. Read what they have to say. Mention this blog post and receive $1500 worth of Stolen Lives at no cost when you book a speech. Unclear about why you would hire an identity theft speaker for your next event? Visit my FAQs page.

Please remember that your private information is YOUR PROPERTY. Treat it with care and have safe and happy holidays.

John Sileo
Identity Theft Keynote Speaker

Hotel Key Cards & Identity Theft

I just checked out of my hotel room in NYC after delivering an identity theft speech to the most wonderful New Yorkers at the Federal Reserve Bank of NY, and it reminded me of a question I hear constantly as I travel:

Can my identity be stolen off of the room key cards that hotels use?

In my experience, the answer is “no”. I have never found anything other than my name, room number and occasionally a customer number encoded on the magnetic strip on the back of the card.

Here’s how key cards work. Hotels store your personal information (credit card number, address, etc.) on their computer system rather than on the card. When they issue you your key card, they encode your name and the room number onto the card. When you use your key card at the hotel gift store or at the bar, it simply records that charge to your room or customer number. When you check out, the charge is billed directly to your credit card.

To verify the accuracy of my experiences, I researched hotel key cards on Snopes is an excellent way to verify the truth of possible scams, frauds and urban myths. Snopes supports my findings, however…

Why take the chance? I’ve never been to a hotel that actually charges you if you don’t return the cards. So, the responsible privacy reflex here is to minimize your chances by destroying the card, even if it doesn’t pose much of a risk. Just like you should shred mail that only has your name and address on it (the first pieces of information an identity thief needs to uncover more identity on the Internet), so should you eliminate the chances that something on the hotel key card will ever be used to steal your identity. It costs you nothing and takes less than 30 seconds to CHOP. And in the meantime, this will get you in the habit of destroying identity exposure so that when it does count, you’re prepared.

Identity theft prevention isn’t about being paranoid, it’s about establishing good habits of privacy and being prepared.

John Sileo
Financial Identity Theft Speeches

Stop Identity Theft of a Deceased Family Member

I’ve just visited the fountain of youth. Have you ever had one of those experiences where you meet a person or a group of people that renews your faith in all that’s good in the world? I delivered a speech on identity theft prevention to AARP South Carolina (a chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons – an amazing organization that you should be part of if you are over 50) yesterday morning, and met a group that actually makes me look forward to growing up. Doris, Barb, Leigh Ann, Patrick, Lynda, Bill, Ridge, Charlie, Emily (I could name 50 more)… these are the people that greeted me like I was part of their family and treated me like someone special. They are some of the youngest spirits I’ve ever met. And I learned a great deal from them…

AARP had asked me to speak at their annual meeting as a thank you to their incredibly dedicated core of volunteers. These are people who put their muscle where their mouth is. And they paid attention and were so engaged that it was like giving a motivational identity theft speech. They inspired me! They must have had fifty additional great questions after the presentation that I didn’t have time to answer because they were headed into additional sessions. Given that, I’d like to take a few minutes to address a few of the items that pertain specifically to identity theft prevention for retirees and people over 50. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, let me point you to the resources on identity theft prevention that AARP provides on their website. They are extensive and geared to the retiree population.

But I want to elaborate on a question that one member of the audience brought up after the speech: identity theft of a deceased family member. This has to be one of the most callous, horrific forms of identity theft. Here a spouse is having to deal with the loss of their soul mate and a criminal takes advantage of their distraction and grief to profit from the deceased’s identity. Here are 5 steps to take after a loved-one has passed away to make sure that their identity rests in peace:

  1. Short Obituaries. Make sure that you don’t include too much identifying information when you write the obituary. Identity thieves use this information (mother’s maiden name, address, ancestry, occupation, birth date, death date) to set up new accounts, licenses, etc. in the deceased person’s name. It is important to honor the person, just don’t give away all of their personal information.
  2. Protect Death Certificates. Guard the death certificate like you would a birth certificate or other piece of identity. You will need to fax this document to certain organizations in order to prove that your family member is deceased, but only send it to trusted institutions who absolutely won’t take the name off of the account without it. When you are done with the death certificate, store the original and all copies in your SentrySafe where you keep other identity documents. Be forewarned that for securities sake, many organizations are requiring an original copy of the death certificate as proof, so ask for 10-12 originals copies when you request the death certificate.
  3. Notify Credit Bureaus. Immediately notify the three credit reporting bureaus that your family member has passed away. Request that the credit report is flagged with the note: Deceased, Do Not Issue Credit. Request a copy of the decedent’s credit report so that you will have a list of all of the accounts you need to modify/close (see Step 4). The procedure varies by credit burea, so the numbers to contact them are as follows: Experian – 888-397-3742; Equifax – 888-766-0008; TransUnion – 800-680-7289. Don’t wait for the Social Security Administration to notify the credit bureaus – it takes them too long! And make sure to log all correspondence and conversations and send documents via certified mail so that you have proof of delivery, should you ever need to dispute a claim of non-receipt.
  4. Notify Financial Institutions. Notify all banks, insurance companies, credit card companies, stock brokers, mortgage companies, loan/lien holders, etc. about the death of your family member (if it was a joint account OR an account under their name). The executor or surviving spouse will need to resolve all outstanding debts and how they will be dealt with before the account can be closed or the deceased person’s name is removed from the account. Also notify the Social Security Administration, Veteran’s Administration, Department of Motor Vehicles, professional license associations (Bar Association), membership programs (Costco, Sam’s, Blockbuster, etc.) and any creditors or collection agencies with which the deceased had an account or membership. This is a difficult time to put in all of the work to protect an identity that should be left alone; but the current reality is that the identities of deceased individuals are easier to steal and abuse than those of the living.
  5. Share Wisely with Family Members. Unfortunately, many cases of deceased identity theft are committed by a member of the deceased’s family. It might be a relative who is in financial trouble, a friend who has a costly addiction or a child that feels he or she was wronged in the will or estate planning. For that reason, the identifying information of a deceased family member should be kept to as small a circle as possible. It seems to work best when one family member is the point-person for collection of documents, closing of accounts, checking of credit, etc. Generally this is someone other than the person who organizes all of the other events that surround the death of a loved one.

This is a heavy topic on the heels of such a wonderful encounter in South Carolina. But as any one who has survived the death of a spouse knows, the responsibility and respect for that person continue long past the date of their death. I hope that these suggestions make that burden/blessing a little bit easier.

John Sileo is an an award-winning author and keynote speaker on identity theft and cybersecurity. John specializes in making security entertaining, so that it works. John is CEO of The Sileo Group, whose clients include the Pentagon, Visa, Homeland Security & Pfizer. John’s body of work includes appearances on 60 Minutes, Rachael Ray, Anderson Cooper & Fox Business. Contact him directly on 800.258.8076.

Do Not Call Registry for Cell Phones?

Do I need to add my cell phone number to a Do Not Call list in order to keep telemarketers from contacting me on my mobile phone?

No. But you should add it to the list anyway. Right now, cell phone numbers are not being released to telemarketers, but they might be in the future. For details, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s article entitled The Truth About Cell Phones and the Do Not Call Registry.

That said, today is a good time to re-submit (or submit for the first time) your home phone number, mobile number and fax number to the National Do Not Call Registry. Here’s why:

  • It stops a majority of those dinner time telemarketing calls that make you wonder why you have a phone. While this doesn’t necessarily protect you against identity theft, it does give you more privacy!
  • In addition, there is a 5-year expiration date on the service, so some subscriptions will begin expiring this coming year (people who signed up in 2003). Rather than figuring out your expiration date, take a minute to re-register.
  • If cell phone numbers do go on the marketplace in the future, you will already be protected.

Register all of your home phone and fax numbers today on the Do Not Call Registry and STOP those telemarketing calls before they start.

John Sileo
Identity Theft Speaker