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I recently had the priviliege of hearing Detective Jim Kelley of the Blue Ash Police Department give a presentation on preventing identity theft and fraud. There was great information shared in the session and well worth passing along in this week’s blog.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was how little most of the tips had to do with computer and internet security. That’s certainly something we’ll touch on, but in this rapidly growing digital age, it seems the easiest targets for crooks continue to be your mailbox, your phone and your garbage can. Yes, dumpster diving is alive and well in the world of fraud.

Some of the top tips from the sessions . . .

1. Buy a Shredder
Detective Kelley said that if he could buy each and every home in this country a gift, it would be a simple shredder. He recommends that any piece of mail, receipts or any other document that we are disposing of get shredded. Criminals are more than happy to root through your trash cans for any information that might help them. If your trash is full of shredded documents, they’re much more likely to move on to the next victim.

2. Mind Your Mailbox
Putting outgoing mail in your mailbox and putting up the red flag doesn’t just get the attention of the mailman. It’s also a literal “red flag” that you have mail with potentially sensitive information ready to steal. Whenever possible, use an alternative method to send any outgoing mail, especially when personal information is involved.

3. Hang Up
The older we are, the more likely we’re a part of a generation that was taught to be polite on the phone. This, however, was likely when the home phone was a tool for communicating with friends, neighbors and family and not a sales tool for every scam under the sun. Detective Kelley stressed to not be too polite to just hang up on stranger or unknown callers. Your bank, credit card company or other trusted institution will never ask for your account information or personal data over the phone unless you’ve called them to resolve an issue and are asking to verify your identity. If you think the call might be legitimate, hang up and call a number that you know connects you with the right entity to confirm.

4. Be Diligent
One of the biggest things criminals bank on is that you’ll be as lazy as they are. You need to be diligent in your affairs. Go over bank and credit card statements when they come to make sure nothing fishy is on the statement. It doesn’t require hours of time or a fine-tooth comb, just a basic review to make sure everything is legitimate. The same goes for your credit report. Visit https://www.annualcreditreport.com/ to review your free credit report and check for any potential errors. You’re entitled to one free report from each of the three major credit bureaus, so set up a reminder every four months to do this today.

5. Don’t Trust E-mail
Yes, your computer is still a concern, too. Use virus protection software and be diligent in what you do online. Be especially careful with your e-mail. More and more, your e-mail contact list is the prime target. If you get a strange e-mail from a known friend or family member’s address asking for money or encouraging you to click on a link that seems out of character, just hit delete. Detective Kelley gave examples of dear friends sending an e-mail that they’re overseas, mugged and desperately need money wired, or the famous lottery that you’ve won that you just need to send a check to cover the taxes. These sound like obvious scams, but those that wish to separate you from your money will continue to get more and more sophisticated in how they go about reaching out to their victims.

6. Quick Tips
– Soak your prescription bottles and peel off the labels and shred. Labels carry a lot of personal information, and you don’t want a potential burglar to know that you’re using Ambien on a nightly basis.
– Use gel pens exclusively to write checks to avoid a fraud known as “check washing”.
– Keep personal information locked up and out of reach if you have cleaning people, home health care or other services in the home where subcontractors might be used from time to time.
– Carry around only what you need on a day to day basis. There is almost never a reason to carry your social security card, little used credit cards or other information besides the basics.

7. Listen to the Experts
Detective Kelley provided excellent information from the National Crime Prevention Council. They have a well-done brochure called “Preventing Identity Theft: A Guide for Consumers”.

The bottom line is there is still no such thing as a free lunch. No one out there wants to give you money for nothing and there’s no reason for you to send anybody money so that they can send you more money. Be vigilant, take the necessary precautions within reason and when something seems too good to be true, take a pass. If there’s any question of legitimacy when it comes to these issues, don’t be ashamed or have too much pride to ask for help. If you have been victimized in some way, report it quickly. Especially when it comes to credit card fraud, if you don’t report it quickly after discovering the discrepancy, you could be liable for the loss. Call the bank, credit card or other company first, then the authorities.

Chip Workman, CFP®