USAA Educational Foundation Offers Identity-Protection Tips
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 25, 2006 It doesn't take much information for a determined identity thief to succeed, a certified financial planner with USAA Financial Planning Services told American Forces Press Service today.
The identity theft issue is at the forefront for millions of veterans who learned this week that computer equipment containing their personal information was stolen from the home of a Veterans Affairs Department analyst.
A little personal information that can be easy to find on the Internet -- name, date of birth and address, for example -- can make stealing someone's identity relatively easy, June Walbert said.
"Clearly our personal information is up for grabs," she said. "We have to face the fact that we live in the information age."
Walbert suggests exercising due caution. Tearing up paper financial statements may be good enough unless a persistent identity thief takes the time to fit them back together like a puzzle.
Cross-shredding financial documents is the best way to make sure information doesn't end up in the wrong hands. Electing to receive financial and credit card statements via the Internet is an even better option, Walbert said. Using Internet transactions, she said, is actually safer than receiving the paper statements in an unsecured mailbox.
"(Security of personal information) is something financial institutions work on daily to ensure that there's not some new trick of the trade out there that's going to enable people to access their customers' identification number and balances," she said. "Financial institutions are extremely diligent about it, because they know the risk that is out there."
She also suggests making a photocopy of all credit and debit cards so if a wallet or purse is stolen, what was stolen doesn't become a guessing game. The copies provide a record of card numbers as well as phone numbers for the credit companies. They should, however, be kept in a secure place, like a lock box.
The USAA Educational Foundation has some additional suggestions for preventing identity theft, including memorizing a Social Security card instead of carrying the card in a wallet or purse. This holds true for personal identification numbers, as well, Walbert said, adding that each card should have a unique personal identification number.
Personal information should not be provided over the phone, by e-mail or the Internet unless the recipient is a known and trusted source. Also, before entering personal information via a Web site, users should make sure the site uses encryption technology. A site that is encrypted may display a yellow padlock symbol in the browser's status bar or a pop-up window that indicates encryption is being used.
When it comes to banking, the foundation suggests not having unnecessary personal information printed on checks. Also, depositing checks at the bank is much safer than leaving them at home in an unsecured mailbox for the postal service to collect.
Doing business with responsible companies that take steps to protect their customers from identity theft is also a good idea, foundation officials said.
Monitoring financial statements and credit reports is also recommended. If these items are checked for unauthorized activity, any fraud or identity theft can be quickly handled.
In the recent case of Veterans Affairs' loss of the personal information for 26.5 million veterans, extra precautions should be taken, Walbert said. She offered suggestions to maximize the options Veterans Affairs has offered veterans for reporting suspicious activity.
"What they need to do is call the credit reporting agency and put a fraud alert on their account," she said. This asks the credit agencies to double-check any inquiries into the credit report and history. There is no charge for this service.
"As a result of that, you get a free credit report by putting that fraud alert on your credit report," Walbert said.
The agency receiving the request for the fraud alert should share that information with its sister agencies, but Walbert said making this request of all three credit agencies is good practice. It also generates a free credit report from each agency. She added that veterans should remember that the information on each report can vary because not all debtors report to all credit agencies. "Just make sure it's all yours, and use it as your baseline," she said.
"They additionally can get that annual credit report that is by virtue of the Fair Credit Reporting Act," Walbert said. "They can get one from each of the three agencies as a result of that act. So do the fraud alert now, then strategically use those other three reports."
She suggested users get a free credit report from one of the agencies a month after placing the fraud alert, another from one of the other agencies a month after that, and the third in the next month.
"Know that even if you are applying for a credit card or a line of credit (after requesting a fraud alert) ... you are going to have to go through a more stringent process to get your credit checked and approved as well," she said. "So be aware that there is a hassle factor, but it's well worth it."
She also encouraged veterans affected by the Veterans Affairs loss of information to go online daily and check their credit and debit card activity. If any of the activity can't be attributed to the cardholder, veterans should call the financial institution immediately, Walbert said.
"The bottom line here is a good offense is the best defense," she said.
USAA is a financial services organization serving military members and their families worldwide.