Identity theft: Take steps to minimize your risk

Although there is no sure-fire way to prevent someone from stealing your identity, you can reduce the likelihood of becoming a victim by protecting and monitoring your personal information

by Legal and Regulatory Staff

While the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Red Flags Rule focuses on guarding your patients and practice against identify theft, it is critical to protect your personal information as well.

In 2008, nearly 10 million Americans fell victim to identity fraud, whereby their identifying information was accessed without permission for monetary gain. (Javelin/Better Business Bureau, February 2009).

Although many victims learn of the crime quickly - for example, through credit card statements that include charges for items they didn't purchase, or worse yet, notices from collection agencies. It can take a significant amount of time and effort to recover, emotionally as well as monetarily.

According to a 2003 survey of identity theft victims, the emotional impact of identity theft can parallel that of victims of violent crime. Setting accounts and credit right again takes victims an average of 600 hours of work (Identity Theft Resource Center).

You protect your patients — now protect yourself
Identity theft can occur anytime, anywhere- with a wallet snatched from a purse, the hacking of your information from an institution's online records, even from discarded information tossed into a trash bin. There have been cases in which employees have been bribed to steal information. Thieves have even used camera phones to record personal information while the victim completes a transaction.

Although there is no sure-fire way to prevent someone from stealing your identity, you can reduce the likelihood of becoming a victim by taking steps to protect and monitor your personal information.

Protect your electronic information
Many of the tactics psychologists use for protecting patient information under the HIPAA Security Rule are also important for protecting your own personal information:

  • Use strong passwords on all your accounts. Strong passwords are at least eight characters and include a combination of upper- and lowercase letters and numbers.

  • Change your passwords regularly, in your practice and at home.

  • Do not use the same password for all of your accounts.

  • Update the software on your computer frequently. This includes your operating system, firewall, anti-virus and anti-spam software.

In addition, when you're online:

  • Never open e-mail or download attachments from people you do not know.

  • Always use a virus scanner when opening attachments (even if the email appears to come from someone you know).

  • Do not respond to competitions or promotions from random or unfamiliar organizations. This is a ploy frequently used by identity thieves.

  • When making purchases online, look for the site's privacy policy and a "lock" icon on the status bar on your Internet browser, which tells you that your information should be secure during transmission.

  • When using a computer in a public place, be aware of others. Individuals nearby could be watching you type in sensitive information. Or they could eavesdrop on phone conversations to listen for credit card numbers or identifying information.

Protect your personal information

  • Protect your Social Security number by using it only when absolutely necessary and never carry your Social Security card with you.

  • Do not include your Social Security or driver's license number on checks.

  • Buy a shredder and use it! Your trash could be a goldmine for identity thieves.

  • Use a locking mailbox and drop outgoing mail containing financial or identity information in a mailbox or take it to the post office instead of leaving it for the mail carrier to pick up.

  • Monitor your credit report and other public information. There are several ways to do this: You can request a free credit report from major credit bureaus such as TransUnion and Equifax. Or you can sign up for identity-theft protection services offered through many banks, financial institutions and independent companies. These services typically help customers protect themselves and assist in recovery efforts should a theft occur.

Visit your bank or lending institution's website for timely information and more advice on protecting against identity theft. Additional helpful Web sites are provided by the U.S. government at Fighting Back Against Identity Theft and the non-profit Identity Theft Resource Center.

By staying alert, taking proactive steps to protect your personal information and using resources that help with early detection, you can greatly minimize the likelihood of suffering identity theft.