Huzzah! The holiday party season has officially begun! It is my favorite time of year because I try to take a few weeks off of the professional speaking circuit to slow down to a normal pace. Over the coming weeks, all of the Whos in Whoville gather to celebrate the communities to which we all belong. Whether it is a neighborhood party, a work celebration or an association shindig (okay, I’m starting to use words that my parents use), it is a great time to honor our friendships, colleagues and causes.
Unfortunately, the abundance of the season attracts malcontents who try to take advantage of our happiness and busy-ness. I call this the Grinch Effect: stealing from others while they are lost in a brief moment of joy. Like the Grinch pilfering the last stocking from the fireplace, identity thieves use our distraction to pluck pieces of private data from our festive homes. Enough already! If you are hosting a holiday party (either at your home or in your office), here are some tips on protecting your identity to foster holiday serenity:
Protecting Your Home or Office from Holiday Identity Thieves
- Know how the Grinch cases your Whobitat (your home, office or other holiday abode). Identity thieves are looking for documents, check books, credit cards, disks, computers, thumb drives, filing cabinets, sensitive trash, mail, purses, wallets, offices, cluttered desks, safes, cell phones and all other receptacles of identity. Fortunately, we tend to keep most of these items in only a few places in our homes, and a majority of that tends to be in a home office.
- I find it easiest to centralize all potential sources of identity into one place, like my office, which has a lock on it. Before company arrives, I lock the office door and it remains locked during the entire party. That way, when a potential thief disappears upstairs (ostensibly to “see the house”), you don’t have to worry about it. Yes, the office (or other lockable room) will be cluttered and filled with piles of mail, documents, computers and other data, but it is worth it!
- At this point in the year, if you haven’t taken time to protect your identity in small steps like I recommend in Privacy Means Profit (fire safes, archival shredding, computer lock-downs, etc.), don’t try to start better privacy habits now. The holiday season is too busy to add this to the list, so improvise (lock it all up in one place) and make it your New Year’s resolution to start properly protecting your privacy. If your home or office is too cluttered to get rid of all of the sensitive information, you probably shouldn’t be hosting the party.
- Ignore the voice inside of your head saying that your friends, family, co-workers and colleagues wouldn’t possibly steal data from you. You are probably right, but a large percentage of all serious identity theft is committed by a Grinch we know. I hear hundreds of stories a year at my speaking engagements where friends and relatives end up being the thief (not to mention that it was one of my closest friends who stole from me). You don’t have to assume the worst about your guests, just simply don’t assume anything and don’t leave it to chance. This is not about them, it’s about your privacy.
- Store your guests identity safely while they are at the party. One of the greatest sources of holiday-party identity theft is the pile of purses and coats that gather in one remote part of the house (usually the upstairs master bedroom, for whatever reason). You don’t want to have to lock this room and allow access like a miserly Scrooge (and become an absent host), so I suggest another alternative. Store purses and coats in a high traffic, plain site location. People are less likely to pilfer when others are in sight. If a guest is uncomfortable with this solution (in all honesty, the average guest won’t even be considering the sensitive information in their purse or coat), have them lock their valuables in the trunk of their own car. This is the point at which the paranoia starts to kill the holiday buzz, but it is a viable option.
- If you are a guest in someone else’s home, do them the favor and leave your valuable data at home or in your own trunk.
None of these suggestions should take more than 15-30 minutes to implement. And every one of them could save you hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars recovering. Unlike the Grinch, most identity thieves don’t return your belongings at the end of the show. Happy Holidays!
John Sileo is the award-winning author of Stolen Lives and Privacy Means Profit (Wiley, August 2010), a professional Financial Speaker and America’s leading identity theft expert. His clients include the Department of Defense, FTC, FDIC and Pfizer; his recent media appearances include 60 Minutes. Contact him on 800.258.8076.