Tips for Avoiding Identity Theft

Madeleine Brand speaks with our Day to Day personal finance contributor and syndicated columnist about the best ways to avoid identity theft. Singletary writes the syndicated column "The Color of Money" for The Washington Post.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

In the last six months, the personal data for millions of consumers has been lost or stolen or, in one case, sold by mistake to identity thieves. The most recent case involved a financial unit of Citigroup Incorporated. CitiFinancial disclosed that the Social Security numbers, loan account information and addresses of nearly four million of its customers were lost by UPS. What's going on here, and what can customers expect? Michelle Singletary writes the syndicated column The Color of Money for The Washington Post. She is DAY TO DAY's personal finance contributor, and she spoke with DAY TO DAY's Madeleine Brand.

MADELEINE BRAND reporting:

Michelle, help us understand this: What is the most common way people's identity is stolen?

MICHELLE SINGLETARY (Personal Finance Contributor): You know, lots of people think that their identity's going to be stolen over the Internet, but surveys show that your mama, your daddy, your cousin, a friend, someone who has access to your files in your home is more likely to steal your identity.

Second to that are employees who work for companies that have a lot of information on you. Anywhere where there's a collection of all your personal data--your home address, your Social Security number, you know, employment information. There have been many cases where employees have sold this information to identity thieves and private investigators looking for people to collect debt from.

BRAND: And is Congress considering doing anything, enacting any legislation, to help protect people's identity?

SINGLETARY: Well, they're having a lot of hearings.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Yeah. Well...

SINGLETARY: You know, I mean, really. But there's some legislators who are trying to push through some legislation. For example, California Senator Dianne Feinstein is pushing legislation that will require companies to notify customers if their data is compromised and because of that compromise they may be subject to identity theft. There's some other pieces of legislation proposals that would limit the use of Social Security numbers, which I highly, highly recommend. And, listen, we need to write our legislators to encourage that, because far too many companies are asking for our Social Security number when they really don't need it.

BRAND: And so in the absence of any legislation, what can people do themselves to protect themselves?

SINGLETARY: You need to be fiercely protective of your information. Every single time someone asks you for your Social Security or other information that really they don't need, you need to question them. This has happened to me a number of times where I just say, `You know what? I'm not giving it to you.' And they may threaten not to give you services or something, but if you really push back, if more of us push back, it would make companies not ask for that. I've been asked for it--you know, I was going to get an X-ray and they asked for my Social Security and I said, `Why?' And she said, `Oh, just so we can identify you in our computer system.' I said, `You may not use that number,' and she said OK; the receptionist said OK. I just got a security system and they were asking for my Social Security number and I refused to give it to them. Now I know that it's not going to always work, that sometimes you're going to just have to hand over that number, but I think you really need to protect your data as much as you protect anything that is so important to you.

BRAND: And do you think people should buy those services that monitor their credit reports?

SINGLETARY: I think if you've had an incident where your data has been compromised and you don't want to have to remember to get your credit report, it is worth the money. If there's no indication that you may be the victim of identity fraud, if you haven't been contacted by one of these companies that either lost your data or sold it to someone erroneously, then you don't really need the monitoring service. A good way to prevent identity theft, or at least get a handle on it, is to pull your credit report at least once or twice a year.

BRAND: Michelle Singletary writes the syndicated column The Color of Money. She's our personal finance contributor, too.

Thanks, Michelle.

SINGLETARY: You're welcome.

CHADWICK: And thank you, DAY TO DAY's Madeleine Brand, for that interview.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News and slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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