By Empish J. Thomas

As someone who has faced two battles with identity theft, I want to share how you can protect yourself and the resources you can use if this happens to you. The most important thing that you can do as a person with vision loss is to educate and empower yourself to avoid being a victim of this type of crime. I learned some valuable information from a teleconference hosted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that was specific for people with visual impairments and that I am providing in this article.

How Does Identity Theft Happen

A very important thing to understand about identity theft is how it happens. Identity theft can occur from someone stealing your wallet or purse. This happened to me at my job at Macy’s as related in my personal story about battling identity theft. It can also occur from a person stealing your mail. It could be a credit card offer that comes in the mail and the thief filling out the application, gets approval for the card, changing your address, and shopping on that stolen card. Identity theft can also occur when friends, family, caregivers, or others close to you steal your information. These examples are more common, but today, identity theft is taking place online with data breaches such as phishing emails that are disguised as legitimate. I see these messages pop up in my inbox from time to time. They will tell me to click on a link to verify my information, but I never do. Sometimes I will call the company and verify that they sent the message to me only to find out that it is a scam and to delete it. Another recent occurrence of identity theft that is growing is medical fraud and tax return theft. Criminals can get access to your medical records and receive treatment under your name or file a return and get your refund.

How to Protect Yourself Against Identity Theft

According to the FTC, here are some smart things you can do:

  • Empty your purse or wallet. Only carry the necessary things that you need. After my first battle with identity theft, I stop carrying my Social Security card and multiple credit cards.
  • Shred mail and other documents with your personal information on it. Today, I have a small shredder I purchased at an office supply store. I shred medical documents, debit card receipts, and other things that have my bank or personal information on it.
  • Select assistants, advisors, and caregivers carefully. This can be tricky but important. Only work with people that you trust and have your best interest at heart. Because I don’t live with my family, I use a core of volunteers from my local blind rehabilitation center because they have had criminal background checks done and have been trained on how to work with blind people. You can also get references and referrals when working with a person you don’t know personally.
  • Don’t give out your personal information unless you are sure who you are dealing with. This can happen in person or over the telephone. I have people coming to my home soliciting and have gotten calls from telemarketers trying to sell me things. I say no thank you nicely to both all the time.
  • Monitor accounts. This could be your checking, saving, and retirement accounts. Every other day, I go online and check my bank accounts. If you are not able to go online to do this, you can also call your financial institution. Many banks will investigate and correct errors very quickly if you let them know as soon as possible.
  • Get a free annual credit report each year. Checking your credit report is a good way to catch any criminal activity. I was able to find out what was happening to my identity after my wallet was stolen at Macy’s by getting a copy of my credit record. Every time the thief tried to use my credit to make purchases, it showed up on the report. You can get your copy by going to Annual Credit Report’s website. Also, now you can get your reports in alternative format such as braille or large print.

Tips to Be Safe

Since identity theft is happening more and more online, here are some tips to be safe:

  • Keep anti-virus software current. When your antivirus software has lapsed, it opens the door for all kinds of phishing emails, malware, and viruses to enter your computer’s hard drive.
  • Be careful using social networks. It is not a good idea to give out too much personal information on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Also, take time to set up your privacy controls so only people you want will have access to your information. I just recently updated my LinkedIn profile to limit the information that is displayed for public viewing. I also don’t list my birth date or phone number on my profile.
  • Use difficult to guess passwords. Passwords that have at least one capital letter, number, or symbol are more complicated to crack.
  • When shopping online, make sure the site is secure. I don’t do a lot of online shopping, but when I do, I go to sites that have a good reputation and have other ways to order besides just on the Internet.
  • Don’t click on links in unsolicited emails. When you see these kinds of messages, just delete them. You can also call the company and let them know that emails are being sent out. They can verify if it is spam or not.

What to Do If Identity Theft Occurs

Even if you follow all the tips and suggestions above, identity theft can still happen. Here are four steps from the FTC that you can do if it happens to you.

Step 1: Contact credit reporting agencies. Many times if you are experiencing identity theft you can contact one of the agencies, and they will in turn contact the others on your behalf. Along with getting a free copy of your report, you can place a fraud alert or credit freeze on your report. This will help stop the thief from acquiring more credit. Here is a list of agencies:

Step 2: Contact companies where the thief committed fraud. When my ATM card was stolen, I immediately told the bank it was identity theft. They in turn closed my account so that no one could access my money or information. I also contacted the bank’s fraud department to let them know as well.

Step 3: File a complaint with the FTC. The FTC provides hotline phone counselors that can assist you with identity theft. You can reach them by calling 1.877.438.4338. You can also go online and file a complaint. Once online, you can print the complaint as an “ID Theft Affidavit” and use that as verification.

Step 4: File a Police Report. In both of my battles with identity theft, the police were called and a police report was issued to me. This is very important as it will document the incident as a crime punishable by the law.

Be vigilant!