For me to have a happy new year, it’s necessary to put on my preaching cap. By doing so, I can help my reader friends have a great 2018 — simply by protecting their identity.
As I’ve urged a hundred times over the years (and folks may be sick of the theme by now), it’s always better to be safe than sorry about our confidential information. After all, once Sammy Scammer gets ahold of even a glimmer, he will be able to sneakily open the door little by little until all we have now belongs to his clever self.
But, wait! Don’t think all is lost. While big breaches like Equifax, Yahoo and Target have and do occur with many millions being adversely affected, thieves do get caught.
According to the most current issue of Reader’s Digest, the IRS has prosecuted ringleaders who paid college students to file false tax returns, mail carriers who stole refund checks, and even a Walmart cashier who knowingly cashed forged return checks.
Hand-in-hand with Uncle Sam’s IRS is his vigilant partner, the Department of Justice. I don’t know about you, but if I thought the FBI, ATF, and all the other letters of the DOJ alphabet were after me, I’d change my line of business — immediately. The easiest and most effective methods to tie thieves’ hands are no secret; I’ve often written about what to do and urged readers to use common sense.
Here go the five “skills” again; keep them close to your heart and refer to each as needed.
-Protect your Social Security number with your life. As I’ve said umpteen million times, this number is the key to Snow White’s stepmother’s mirror: what you see is what you get. And once this number is misplaced, a whole lot of Ellen Phillips can appear on the horizon. Medical information and other confidential data is (seriously) free for the asking and, worse, that one page of info can be sold over and over on the black market.
-My next opinion: Never give out your Social Security number to anyone — never — unless required by law. If you’re “invited” to write the info on a form, refuse nicely. Simply say you don’t give out this information or write on the form “Supplied upon request.” Most receptionists will simply smile and move on. If someone insists, discuss the necessity with your doctor. After all, the provider has the patient’s insurance update so why must he or she also use our Social Security number? My theory? Quite simply, it makes their (accounting) lives easier. On the other hand, federal law — in the form of the Mandatory Insurer Reporting law — instructs group plan issuers (health and life) to report Social Security numbers to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for subscribers and covered dependents. The ostensible reason: To cut down on payment errors and possible fraud. The decision to share is yours. A business may not provide you with a service or benefit if you don’t provide your number, though this occurs infrequently if at all. And, finally, a warning: We’re are too used to giving out our final four Social Security numbers when asked. Start. Thinking. Sophisticated criminals and their high-tech data bases can figure out the totality of this very confidential number. Be very careful.
Social Security info/thievery has become such a widespread concern that Medicare is now issuing new ID cards that omit our Social Security number from the Medicare card. In the interim, please do as I do to stay safe from theft, drive-by skimming and the like: Get some protection by making a copy of your original card and, after the first visit to the doctor, blacking out all but the last four digits of your Social Security number. That way you won’t have to carry around your original card at all times.
On another note, folks victimized by the Equifax breach have (please!) done as I’ve advised; otherwise, request a free copy from one of the Big Three: Equifax, Experian, or Trans Union. If consumers request a freebie every four months and check for suspicious activity, take it a step better by paying for the other non-free months (no more than $39). You’ll be absolutely protected.
-Secure all of your accounts and log-ins. First, assuming your login and password are easy enough for a savvy scammer to eventually guess, then all of your other accounts (bank, shopping logins, etc.) are completely insecure as well. It boggles my mind that the most common password is 123456 while the eighth most common is password. No wonder that one in six online account holders is at such great risk.
To avoid identity theft, create a password unique to each account and consisting of no fewer than 12 characters. Further, be sure you include a mix of numbers, letters and special characters. For example, it’s easy to remember family birthdates (minimum of 12 characters, please) but lock ’em up by including adjectives that match that person; for example, your younger (of three) child’s birth month is May. Using these three letters, your password becomes merryAudaciousyoungesT3! In this case, you have used all of the required components — capital and lower-case letters, a number, a special character, and, best of all, it is easily recalled. And for an extra precaution, never ever use your mother’s maiden name as a password reminder. Do not use any answer as a password reminder such as your dog’s name, first name of your kids, high school mascot, the street where you grew up, etc. Many experts also advise no single-word answer. The phone number when you were a child or the first name of your favorite elementary school teacher are both great reminders and could also be used as passwords (with required elements, of course).
More tips next week.
Contact Ellen Phillips at [email protected] timesfreepress.com.