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Protect Yourself From Identity Theft

What's your favorite pizza topping? That's not an idle question when it comes to protecting your identity. In fact, it's one of many security questions now being used by banks to verify your online banking transactions.

What's your favorite pizza topping?
That's not an idle question when it comes to protecting your identity. In fact, it's one of many security questions now being used by banks to verify your online banking transactions.

Identity theft is a growing problem, with more than 217 million people affected by data breaches since 2005, according to the nonprofit

Most of these cases will go unsolved and unprosecuted. Financial institutions simply pay for the losses (passing along the costs), or put the blame on the consumer.

That makes it all the more important that you know the many forms of identity theft, along with what will -- and won't -- protect you. If you think it's only about credit cards, you're probably vulnerable.

A Credit "Freeze" Isn't the Answer

There's widespread advertising for services that promise to put a "freeze" on your credit report, but those services really can't protect you from the most expensive types of identity theft. In fact, consumers are paying big monthly fees for something they could easily do themselves for free.

A temporary credit freeze keeps anyone from opening new credit in your name. You can do that with a click, by going to, which connects you to each of the three major credit bureaus to order your free credit report (safely authenticated), and at the same time request a 90-day credit freeze if you want one.

But protecting against someone opening new credit in your name doesn't give you any protection against a number of identity theft schemes. According to the Federal Trade Commission, credit freezes take care of only about 30% of the identity theft problems.

Identity Theft Dangers

Here are a few identity theft dangers that a credit freeze won't protect against:

  • Unauthorized use of an existing credit card. If you report fraud promptly, Visa or MasterCard issuers will remove the charges and it won't cost you a penny. (There are exceptions to this policy for business cards, and for cards issued outside the U.S.)
  • Unauthorized use of your debit card for purchases or to withdraw cash. A debit card simply doesn't have the same protections as a credit card. If someone has your debit card and PIN, and uses it to withdraw cash, you'll be fighting it out with your bank to prove that it was not really you who withdrew the money. Fraudulent purchases made with a Visa debit card are not protected -- unless the transaction happens to be transmitted over the Visa network, which is used by only 60% of merchants, and which is not apparent to the consumer when you punch in your PIN. Remember, your debit card gains access to not only the balance in your checking account, but to any line of credit you may have, as well.
  • Unauthorized use of your Social Security number. Establishing a credit freeze doesn't protect you from unauthorized use of your Social Security number, if the user doesn't open any new credit. Illegal aliens often use existing Social Security numbers, and employers who treat them as legitimate workers will make "contributions" on their behalf to your Social Security record. Check each year to make sure that reported earnings aren't more than you earned. An even worse-case scenario has involved unauthorized use of your Social Security number to refinance a house, rent an apartment in your name, etc. You can get your Social Security earnings statement securely online.
  • "Phishing" online scams. Amazingly, people still fall for scam emails pretending to be from your bank, brokerage firm or PayPal -- asking you to click on a link for a message of urgent importance from your financial institution. These authentic-looking messages trick thousands of people each month into "logging in" to their accounts at a fake site, thus exposing their account numbers and passwords to the thieves. Never click on a link! Instead, go directly to your bank's Web site to log in and receive any messages posted there.

Pizza and Protection!

All of which brings us back to the issue of your favorite pizza topping... Your bank has probably asked you to create a new password and PIN lately. They want your password to contain at least eight characters, including one upper-case letter and one numeral, and a PIN with at least six digits. If you have multiple accounts, the temptation is to use the same formula for each one -- again exposing you to even more devastating financial consequences of identity theft!

In order to establish a further degree of security, the banks are moving past asking for the last four digits of your Social Security number, or your mother's maiden name, to validate any contacts with them. Now they're asking you to choose at least eight "security" questions, and the answer you'll give when they ask -- at any time -- for verification of a transaction or query.

As I found out in a recent communication when I logged on to bank online, those choices can be unusual. Among the options:

  • Best friend in high school
  • Favorite subject in school
  • Name of my first pet
  • Favorite type of tree
  • Favorite season of the year
  • Favorite time of day
  • Favorite food
  • Favorite sports team
  • Favorite pizza topping

I called the bank, laughing, asking if they were serious. Obviously these "security" questions were written by a 20-something techie, for whom favorite school subjects and first pet name were recent memories. Or maybe the security consultants are Zen masters, for whom a favorite season or time of day are truly memorable.

As for the pizza topping, I remember when I would have demanded pepperoni. But bowing to the demands of kids, I learned to say: "Oh, we're ordering pizza? Anything but anchovies."

Maybe answering these questions will really improve banking security. Or memories! In the meantime, be vigilant about your identity. Check online balances frequently. And don't fall for false promises of protection. Your identity is a valuable thing to lose. And that's The Savage Truth.