Paper Paranoia

Identity theft is primarily a low-tech crime, as mentioned in this article via slashdot: More Identity Theft Offline Than Online. For those reluctant to RTFA, the story outlines the results of a government study on identity theft. 72% of the cases surveyed were offline thefts (traced back to a lost wallet, stolen mail, or plain old dumpster-diving). Also of note, the losses were much lower for online ID theft, an average of $2,320 per victim versus an average loss of $15,607 for identities stolen on paper.

So the lesson here is that most people’s paranoia is in the wrong place. A lot of otherwise intelligent people are afraid to make a purchase online because the Hollywood media has filled their heads with images of stringy-haired Jolt-chugging spampunks hax0ring the Gibson to get their pasty fingers on your sensitive data, yet they won’t hesitate to read their credit card number and SSN aloud to a friendly voice that asks them about their hobbies. That’s not to say that online transactions are risk-free. There are plenty of precautions you should take and guidelines to follow when passing private information through a modem, but that’s a subject for another post.

When it comes to sensitive information on analog dead-tree media, there are some basic things you can do to protect your identity:

  • Invest in a paper shredder, preferably of the crosscut or “confetti” type. Long strips can be reassembled by a crook with enough time on his hands, especially since the strips tend to clump together in much the same shape as they were when whole. Save your bank statements, credit card statements, and bill stubs for a while (somewhere secure, a locked drawer at least) in case you need to refer to them, but after a few months they can probably be shredded.
  • Try to avoid writing personal checks at stores, use a debit card instead. A lot of identifying information can be found on a personal check: Your name, address, account number, bank routing number, even a copy of your signature. When stores take a check they often ask for a driver’s license number and write it directly on the paper check, and in many states in the US that’s also your social security number.
  • On the subject of personal checks, if your bank returns your processed checks along with your statements, shred them or save them in a secure place. If you don’t need those old checks for your archival purposes, ask your bank to stop sending them to you. They keep copies of every check they pass anyway, you can always ask for them if the need arises.
  • Protect your snail mail. If you live in a house in a residential neighborhood, your mailbox probably isn’t locked, so don’t let your mail sit there for too long. If you’re going out of town for a while, get someone you trust to pick up your mail. Stealing mail from open boxes is one of the easiest ways for an ID thief to gather personal information.
  • Know your billing cycles. If a recurring bill doesn’t arrive when it should, contact the company or utility and find out if/when it was sent.
  • If you’re paying bills by mail, don’t send them from an unsecure mailbox (like the one on the curb in front of your house). Take those bills to a locked postal service drop box, or better yet, pay them online.

Of course, this isn’t everything you can do to safeguard your touchy inked data, but there’s a fine line between prudent “double-checking the locks” paranoia and wacko “incinerating your toenail clippings so the government can’t clone you” paranoia. Just use some common sense: if you don’t want a criminal reading what’s printed on that piece of paper, then take a few preventive measures to make sure they don’t get the chance.