Protect yourself against identity fraud

In today's virtually cashless world, almost nothing beats the convenience of being able to access our email, bank accounts and other important personal information right from our computers or smartphones.


But there's a potential dark side to all these technological advancements: They can sometimes expose us to new forms of identity theft.

Kristine Schatz, a customer service representative at Merchants Bank in Rochester, says during the past couple of years she and others at Merchants Bank have seen a marked increase in the number of identity theft reports they've received from customers.

"Especially with debit cards over the Internet," she says. "We're also seeing a lot of overseas stuff happening."


And while they know it's happening, the thing that Schatz and others haven't quite been able to pinpoint yet is exactly how it's happening.

"That's still somewhat of a mystery right now," she says.

That's one of the reasons Schatz spends a lot of time giving her customers the tools and knowledge they need to protect themselves online.

"At home, the big thing is to regularly check your accounts," she says. "Also, if you're making a lot of purchases online, never write down your password anywhere.

"And never use the same password for everything that you do online. I know that can be hard, but if you use the same password for everything, once the thieves figure that out for one account they can just continue on down the line to your other accounts."

For those who do make a lot of purchases online, Schatz says the damage of a potential account number theft can be diminished by using a separate account for these purchases.

"We encourage people to set up a separate account for online transactions," she says. "And then only deposit the money that you need for those purchases so that if someone does steal that account number, they won't be taking money out of your household accounts."

Schatz says it's also important to take the time to actively monitor your credit report by requesting a free copy of your report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies, and to make sure that you stagger those requests throughout the year.


"A lot of times, people will request their free credit report from all three agencies at the same time, but you can actually stagger that throughout the year," she says. "So you can request it from one company at the beginning of the year, another during the middle of the year and the third at the end of the year.

"That way, you can see your credit report three times throughout the year instead of just once."

Extra precaution

Karen Hanson, vice president of Insurance Services for Hirman Insurors, a wholly owned subsidiary of Think Mutual Bank in Rochester, says some people have also chosen to give themselves an extra layer of protection by purchasing an identity theft insurance policy.

"At Hirman, identity theft coverage can be purchased as a stand-alone policy or as an endorsement to a larger homeowner policy," Hanson says.

"We have approximately 7,500 customers who participate in this kind of protection right now, and one of the benefits is that when something happens, an advocacy service is often provided to act on your behalf to help you get things straightened out, because if you haven't experienced identity theft before it can be quite scary."

If all else fails, however, and you suspect that you have become a victim of identity theft, both Hanson and Schatz say it's important to act quickly.

"Act quickly as soon as you suspect that something isn't right," Hanson says. "Start by placing a 90-day fraud alert on your credit report to prevent anyone from opening new accounts in your name and to give yourself some time to dig into what's happened."


Schatz says you should also immediately file a police report.

"You'll also want to report these crimes to your local police department because in order to clear some of these things up, a lot of companies will want that police report because it's then easier to prove that it wasn't you making those purchases," she says.

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