Expert offers advice on how to live defensively
Attention senior citizens (and pretty much everybody else, too): In the escalating battle against identity theft, are you armed to foil con men and thieves?
Your weapons, according to the San Diego district attorney’s office, should be:
- A crosshatch bladed shredder.
- A gel pen.
- Computer-savvy grandkids who will show you how to pay bills and bank online.
In a presentation before La Jolla seniors on Jan. 13 at the League House, Midge Costanza, public affairs officer in the area of Identity Theft and Elder Abuse in the Office of San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, warned her audience that the good old days of personal privacy and public trust are long gone.
She outlined some of the tricks crooks use to gain access to Social Security, bank account and telephone numbers so they can steal your identity, finances and peace of mind — the effects of which linger for years afterward.
“Sad as it is to say, you’ve got to live defensively these days,” Costanza said. “You’ve got to use the technology at your disposal — the Internet, caller I.D. — and be sensitive to anything that looks or sounds unusual.”
Costanza explained why three essential “weapons” are your first defenses in foiling identity thieves.
- Since thieves monitor mailboxes and sift through rubbish for checks, credit applications, names and addresses, a shredder with crosshatch blades should always be used to dispose of financial papers. A shredder with vertical or horizontal blades is not an effective deterrent because the strips of paper can (and have) been taped together in crimes.
- Since thieves use ink-dissolving chemicals on checks and credit applications to gain clean documents for their purposes, use gel pen ink exclusively because it is the only ink that cannot be eliminated.
- Use the computer to do your banking because it eliminates the information-laden paper trail that otherwise passes through many hands and places to complete financial transactions. Online banking is secure and instantaneous, and so is the electronic record of the transaction — all delivered from the safety of your home.
“Try not to mail checks at all,” Costanza advised. “Have your bank do the work for you. But if you must, take your name off your checks; all the utilities really need from them are the amount due and your account number, anyway.”
Costanza said that keeping watch on your finances means checking your credit report three times a year. Each of the three major credit bureaus offers one free credit report a year, so if you stagger your requests, you’ll be monitoring your money wisely.
Another way to protect your identity is to never let anyone into your home who could steal your wallet or mail.
“This includes home care workers, cleaning ladies, handymen and gardeners who come to the door saying they are working in the area and need a glass of water,” she said. “No one has a sink at their front door, so in the time it takes for you to walk to the kitchen for the water, the thief has taken your wallet from the purse in the foyer or gone through your drawers for mail and papers.”
She said all hired help should be pre-screened by a phone call to their employers. “Ask what they do to check the background of their employees,” she said. “We have prosecuted so many home care specialists, plumbers, construction workers, I can tell you, you can’t be too cautious in this regard.”
Costanza said if you suspect your identity was stolen, your first phone call should not be to the police, but to the Identity Theft Resource Center. The center will assign you a case number that you’ll need for all the remaining phone calls to your credit card company, the police, your bank, etc.
“Funny how we are all just numbers these days,” Costanza said. “But since that is the case, we must be smart about safeguarding those numbers.”
Consumer Protection Resources
- CA Contractors State License Board