Proactive practices protect customers:

Identity theft affects customers and consumers in all walks of life. According to studies conducted in July 2003 by Gartner Research and Harris Interactive, some 7 million people became victims of identity theft during the 12 months prior to the surveys. That equates to 19,178 victims per day. One of the most well-known advocates at the forefront of identity theft prevention practices is the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), Washington, D.C. According to Michelle Boykins, director of communications, “Retailers and banks can help assist NCPC in educating consumers about how to protect their personal information in a variety of simple ways.”

Boykins noted the following key steps to protect customers:

  • Let customers know how you are working to protect their personal information.

  • Encourage identification checks when customers use credit or debit cards. 

  • Encourage customers to monitor their credit report at least once a year. 

  • Help them avoid phishing scams by promoting that your business will never call to ask a customer to verify personal information. 

  • Ensure they have the highest caliber of employees working for them. Sophisticated identity thieves will buy records stolen by an employee who has been bribed. Also know how to spot devices employees may use to skim a customer’s credit or debit card in order to make counterfeit cards at a later date.

  • Shred customer documents that do not need to be retained. 

  • Monitor customer accounts for any unusual activity and contact them to verify expenditures. 

  • Ensure your Web sites have the latest software technology to ward off computer hackers.

While much of the burden of protecting financial and personal information falls in the hands of financial and retail institutions, consumers can be their own biggest advocates.

Boykins agreed that consumers should be vigilant in protecting their own personal information. Consumers can do the following:

  • Ask about a company’s privacy laws and what they are doing to protect personal information.

  • Keep credit cards and banking information secure.

  • Review your bank statements each month for mistakes or unfamiliar charges.

  • Use direct deposit. 

  • Carefully secure your wallet or purse when shopping. 

  • Be aware of your surroundings. Identity thieves can use a camera cell phone to photograph credit or ATM card numbers while in a store. Look around to ensure no one is shoulder surfing by watching from nearby for a personal identification number, and don’t give a credit card number aloud in public places with others around.

  • Know when your bank or credit card statements arrive in the mail; missing or late statements can be a warning sign.

Take it seriously

Even by following all the appropriate steps to prevent occurrences of identity theft, statistics show we will all be victims at one time or another. The good news is that the law may lessen the effects of these incidents.

“In Texas, there are new laws to protect from identity theft and also to help those whose lives have been turned upside down,” said Paco Felici, deputy communications director, Office of the Attorney General, State of Texas, Austin. “For instance, authorities can now go after businesses that are careless in protecting their customers. Like those that fail to shred paperwork left in public Dumpsters, documents that contain information like Social Security numbers and financial information. Another recent change has been that retailers are prohibited from printing all 16 digits of a credit card number on a customer receipt.

Even when all prevention practices have been adhered to, sometimes identity theft cannot be avoided. The light at the end of the tunnel is that government entities now realize just what is at stake. Statistics place the time spent for each individual to recover from identity theft at around 600 hours with $1,500 of out-of-pocket expenses. That is a large outlay of time, energy and money by the victim.

“Awareness is the biggest step to take,” Felici said.

As consumers and businesses become better educated in ways to help prevent this type of identity theft, they can work together to protect everyone involved. 

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached via e-mail at JenLeahS@msn.com.