Identity theft: let’s begin

Welcome to our new column about identity theft. Just a few years ago an identity theft column would have seemed unnecessary. If a person kept an eye on his or her credit cards and didn’t fall for the “Royal Family in Nigeria” who wants to share millions, your identity could be reasonably safe. However, identity is no longer in your hands.

Every week we read about massive thefts of personal information. Tuesday of last week it was revealed that JPMorgan Chase was hacked this summer and information on 70 million account holders was compromised. By Thursday, that number was revised to 76 million along with seven million businesses. By Saturday, it was that number plus eight more institutions and not even a guess about how many accounts.

What can an individual do? Absolutely nothing. If you are an account holder you probably will get a replacement credit card, some basic credit monitoring for a year and an assurance that it can’t possibly happen again—until it does. And this is the galling part: they will say that “There is nothing to worry about. No customer will lose any money,” as Target said when they lost the information on nearly 100 million customers, LivingSocial when they lost the information of 50 million and Home Depot, which still won’t reveal their final losses.

Losing your money is the least of your worries. Your liability with these companies is trivial. They will eat the losses and your bank will give you a new credit card. Your worry is that hackers now have the information they need to liquidate your retirement plan and your IRAs, obtain a driver’s license in your name in multiple states, commit crimes, apply for a passport, have surgeries on your medical plan, allow undocumented immigrants to work using your Social Security number and not pay taxes on the income. That should be your worry.

So, welcome to this new column, where we will not be able to fix any of what the Chase Banks or Home Depots of the world do to lose your information, but we will try to help our readers understand how identities get stolen, define some of the techno-babble surrounding it and make suggestions about how to minimize your risk. We plan to make specific suggestions on what you can do to minimize your exposure and ask you to send in your stories and questions on this topic so we can share them with others.

In just a few short years we have gone from, “No need for this column” to “We can’t write it fast enough to keep up with the problem.”  However, we will do our best. See you next week.

Suggestion for this week:  If your wallet were stolen today, how fast could you cancel your credit cards, driver’s license and any other information in it? Go to Walmart or Kmart to buy a fireproof lock box (about $25.00). Then find a photocopier and copy the fronts and backs of everything in your wallet, put them in the lock box and store it in a safe place at home or at work. We will use that lock box a lot in future weeks.

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