Forty years ago, few people could have predicted that identity theft would become as big an epidemic as it is today. Few could have imagined the importance of taking mail to the post office instead of leaving it in our mailboxes for pickup, the thought of shredding documents before throwing them in the trash, or that a $2 pen could help prevent a crime.
Amid this epidemic, we see more and more people become faceless victims—victims of identity theft. Powerless, we waste countless hours and money recovering from what was taken from us—our name, our credit, our money—essentially, our lives. The problem is we are a reactive society. We wait until a problem surfaces before seeking a solution.
We need to find ways to protect ourselves before identity theft strikes. We can make drastic improvements toward diminishing this crime, but it will never disappear altogether. If you haven’t been a victim of identity theft, it is because thieves haven’t gotten to you yet. If things fail to change, your turn will come. Prevention is not simply a matter of following a checklist of tips; it is about education—the primary factor in protecting ourselves.
While more and more people are using online banking, America’s 78 million Baby Boomers, who make up 15 percent of the U.S. population, continue to be a paper-driven majority. This group also accounts for 30 percent of fraud victims, as estimated by Consumer Action, a consumer-advocacy group.
A check holds all of the information needed to steal your identity: name, address, bank account, routing number. If written with a ballpoint pen, information can easily be removed by a process called check washing, a common form of identity theft. It is the process of taking a check or document that has already been filled out, removing the ink with a regular household chemical, then re-writing in a new dollar amount and recipient. If you are careless, your personal check could contribute to the 1.2 million fraudulent checks written every day. That’s more than 13 per second.
The American Bankers Association states that check fraud is growing 25 percent per year. To slow this growth, we need to understand how it works. I know firsthand how easy it is to perform check fraud. About 40 years ago, I cashed $2.5 million in fraudulent checks in every state and 26 foreign countries over a five-year period. I was involved in a high-stakes game of stolen identities. And to know how easy it can be to perform, I know it is just as easy to prevent.
Criminals rely on our mistakes to make their job easier. Taking a few precautions will make you less attractive to predators. Don’t leave mail in your mailbox overnight or over the weekend. Thieves wait for that red flag to go up to score an outgoing check or other personal information. When writing checks and filling out important documents, use a gel pen, like the uni-ball® 207, so thieves can’t remove the ink and change the information. These pens trap the ink within the fibers of the paper, making it essentially impossible for check washing to occur. Additionally, shred or tear up unwanted documents that contain personal information before discarding them. The cost of a high-quality shredder is far less than the cost of having your identity stolen.
Let’s face it; we can’t always control what is happening in our world, so we must take steps to control what we can. Technology is here to stay, but there are still simple and inexpensive ways to prevent identity theft when writing checks. Remember that a crook always looks for the easiest route to riches. Don’t hand him a map. Be proactive and start protecting yourself today.
Tax Season Tips
The Federal Trade Commission recently issued its annual report of consumer complaints, and for the seventh year in a row, identity theft tops the list, accounting for 36 percent of complaints received in 2006. To help combat this problem, renowned identity-theft expert Frank W. Abagnale is teaming up with uni-ball® pens, to provide helpful tips to safeguard identities during the 2007 tax season—and all year long.
For The IRS’ Eyes Only. When mailing your taxes, make sure that your personal documents and enclosed check (if applicable) are not visible from the outside. Don’t make it easy for others to see what is inside the envelope. Try wrapping your check in another sheet of paper to disguise what’s inside.
Secured Boxes Are Best. Always put outgoing tax mail in a secured mailbox, preferably at a local post office location. If mailing from home, never use the “mailbox flag.” This only alerts “street cruisers” that there may be an outgoing check in the mail. Also avoid putting your mail out at night, when you know pickup is not until the next day.
Write Wisely. Something as simple as the type of pen you use can help protect your identity. Remember to always use a black uni-ball 207 pen when writing and signing important documents, including the checks you write to Uncle Sam. This prevents a form of identity theft known as “check washing,” a process where checks are stolen from the mail or by other means and the ink is erased using common household products. The forger can then rewrite the check payable to himself or herself, in the amount of their choosing. Color pigments found in the uni-ball 207 pen’s ink are trapped into the fibers of the check and cannot be “washed,” ensuring your money goes to the IRS and not a thief.
Shred Old Documents. Make sure to use a cross-cut or micro-cut paper shredder when disposing of old documents. The papers that may not seem important to you could be a treasure if a thief finds them.
Protect Your Computer. Today, working online to do your taxes is a common practice. Make sure that your computer is protected by a firewall and you are using secure software. Also, the computer your children use should not be used for personal financial information, such as bookkeeping, online banking and tax reporting. As much as you might teach them otherwise, kids may download free software, music and games that can potentially infect your computer with viruses.
Got Your Number. Never give out your Social Security number without clarification. It is also a good idea to avoid printing your SSN on your checks. It is not required to put this very personal number on a document as public as a check.
Choose Experts Wisely. If you choose to have someone help you with your taxes, do some background research before committing to your tax professional. Seek information from organizations such as the Better Business Bureau.
Be Smarter Than Sneaky Thieves. When writing a check to the IRS, make the check payable to the Internal Revenue Service. If an individual simply writes the check out to “IRS,” thieves can easily alter the “I” to an “M” and make the check payable to themselves as “MRS” anyone.