Worried about the Target data breach? Try closer to home. Crooks don't need advanced technology know-how to steal your identity.
In fact, thieves could be redirecting your mail, glancing over your shoulder at the checkout or sneaking into your car or home while you are right there, all in the search for credit card information. “Low-tech identity theft happens a surprising amount of time,” notes Jane Carpenter, founder of Maine Identity Services, which offers data breach repair kits and assists victims of identity theft in her state.
Once thieves have your key information, they can open credit accounts, make charges or withdraw funds.
Here are some of the sneaky, yet simple, ways bad guys help themselves to your information, and what you can do to avoid becoming their next victim.
1. Slider method
Thieves can “slide” in through an open window of your home, notes Katie Ross, education and development manager for American Consumer Credit Counseling. They then take whatever they can get their hands on. Ross says this has even happened while the homeowner was at home.
And it can happen at the gas station: While you're filling your vehicle with gas, the thief might reach in through an open window or the front passenger door and grab your wallet or purse.
How to avoid it: Aside from keeping all the windows in your home closed at all times (which can seem a little extreme), you should lock birth certificates and any documents with your family members' Social Security numbers and other important information in a safe place, recommends Michele Cacdac-Jones, senior director of communications and PR at Equifax Personal Solutions.
If you're traveling alone in your car, roll up the windows and lock your vehicle's doors when pumping gas.
2. Change of address forms
Has your mail stopped? Criminals will sometimes file a change of mailing address. These forms are readily available from the United States Postal Service. They then get all of the mail, including credit cards, notes Arkady Bukh, an ID theft lawyer in New York.
How to avoid it: If you get a notice that you've changed your address — and you haven't moved – contact the post office. Call your credit card company if you stop receiving statements.
3. Grabbing employee records
Don't assume your information is safe at work.
“Your employer has all sorts of information about you, including your date of birth, your Social Security number and, in some instances, your driver's license and passport information,” says Carpenter. If data is stored in files that are easily available, it could fall into the wrong hands.
4. Dumpster diving
Crooks will even dig through trash looking for bills and receipts. “This technique is old, but still works since a lot of people just throw away documents with sensitive, personally identifiable information,” says Ashley Schwartau, director of multimedia production at The Security Awareness Company, which offers security awareness programs and resources for consumers and businesses.
How to avoid it: Shred bills and credit card offers. To reduce the amount of paper you toss, consider moving some or all of your accounts online.
5. Stealing from your mailbox
Here's an old favorite: “Depending on your credit card company or bank's timetable for mailing statements, incoming mail provides an identity thief with all sorts of information, like your credit card or bank account number,” says Carpenter.
Similarly, crooks might grab outgoing mail in your mailbox.
How to avoid it: Don't let incoming mail linger in your mailbox. When sending out documents, drop them off at the post office or use a locked mailbox.
You could get a call from a person claiming to be from your credit card company. This person then asks you to confirm private information, such as your Social Security number. Once you hand it over, the thief might call your credit card company, pose as you and access your information.
How to avoid it: Any time someone calls and requests sensitive information, back away. “Simply do not give them your data,” says Robert Siciliano with BestIDTheftCompanys.com.
7. Foiling businesses
This trick begins on the roof of a business. Criminals locate the satellite dish the store uses to transmit credit card information from transactions. They cover it with foil to block the signal, making it impossible for the store to validate credit and debit transactions.
The bad guys can then make purchases with stolen or maxed out credit cards. Many retailers allow sales even if the link with the credit card company is down — they assume the transaction will go through later on when the connection is back in order.
How to avoid it: To catch thieves in action, businesses should consider installing a security camera on the roof. “The price of installing an extra security camera is less than what they'd lose from the fraud,” says Schwartau.
8. Shoulder surfing
This can happen at a cash register, ATM or even on a train or bus. The thief looks over your shoulder to catch a glimpse of your transaction or the Web page you're visiting. The goal is to get user names, passwords or both, notes Siciliano.
How to avoid it: Whenever you're using a laptop, keep the screen at an angle where only you can view it, suggests Siciliano.
When punching in information at an ATM or cashier PIN pad, use one hand to hide what you're doing.
9. Social media searches
“A lot of the information someone would need to commit ID fraud is readily available in your online profile,” notes Schwartau. A quick view of your Facebook account, for instance, might help crooks spot your date of birth, where you live and your favorite places to shop.
How to avoid it: Remove sensitive information from your public profiles. Also, some financial accounts ask you to provide questions and answers online for security purposes, such as your birth place or mother's maiden name. “Make sure you don't select any questions or answers that appear in your Facebook profile,” says Schwartau.
While low-tech credit crooks are likely to keep lurking, being alert can go a long way toward protecting your information. “Keep it in mind at the workplace or when standing in line,” suggests Carpenter. And if you spot a transaction that you didn't authorize on a statement, contact your credit card company or financial institution right away. Taking precautions and monitoring your accounts will keep your credit safe – and the bad guys at bay.