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Blog: Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles
Will The Real Paper Doll Please Stand Up? (Organizing To Prevent Identity Theft)

"It's not a soap opera until somebody's evil twin shows up."

~Kate Austen, Lost

When Paper Doll was far too young, summers were spent watching soap operas. One particularly nifty option was One Life To Live, where the overarching premise (more so than on any other serial), was that almost every character had a secret life, dual personality or evil twin. Delicious as it was, I always feared the prospect of someone else pretending to be Paper Doll (I guess at that tender age, I was Paper Dolly) and turning in badly done homework. Never could my childish brain have imagined the horrors of someone intentionally taking on my persona to cheat me (or my creditors, or my insurance company) out of money! But identity theft is definitely more frightening than Viki/Niki or Marco/Mario.

Organizing is about saving time and money, increasing productivity and reducing stress, but skipping one small step in the organizing process can actually endanger your finances, your future and your good name. You probably know how important it is to eliminate unnecessary paper clutter, but with identity fraud one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States, it's equally important to safeguard your personal data.

Each time you rifle through your daily mail or finish preparing your tax return, you may be tempted to discard unnecessary scraps of paper in the trash. Research indicates, however, that the number one source for identity thieves to get your private information is not the Internet or hacking corporate accounts, but old-fashioned dumpster-diving. In the war on identity theft, be sure you aren't providing the bad guys with any ammunition.

Before tossing any paper into the trash, I strongly urge you to follow these guidelines to protect your hard-earned credit history.

SHRED any documents that can be used to help a thief set up a false version of your identity. These items include unused pre-approved credit card offers, bank and credit card convenience checks, balance transfer forms and anything bearing account or Social Security numbers, PINs or phone/Internet passwords.

CUT UP expired or canceled credit and debit cards into tiny pieces to ensure that no one could piece them back together. Do not be tempted to just cut the card in half. While a brick-and-mortar store would not accept a card cut in two, a thief can still use the numbers to make Internet and catalog purchases and would still have access to the super all-powerful three-digit access code on the signature line on the back of the card.

NEVER PROVIDE YOUR PERSONAL INFORMATION (including Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, account numbers or passwords) via standard email, nor over the phone if you did not initiate the call. If a store cashier asks you to provide your Social Security number on a check, refuse to do so. The momentary annoyance of explaining your reasoning to the store manager is far less than the frustrating loss of time and money spent repairing your damaged name.

On the Internet, credit card purchases are only considered secure transactions if the purchase is made on a page whose address starts with https:// instead of the usual http://. Also, look for a small lock-shaped icon in a corner of your browser window, indicating the merchant has made efforts to secure your personal data.

DON'T GET PHISHED. It's much more likely that an identity thief would try to steal your personal information via a sneaky email than by phone. Thieves create a false email (and hide behind the mask of your financial institution) for the purpose of getting you to click on their link and enter personal data.

If you ever get an email stating that there is a problem with your bank or credit card account, directing you to click on a link to log in and check or change your information, STEP AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER! Then take a deep breath, delete the email and log in to your account through your computer browser's "bookmark" or "favorite" listing or by manually typing the usual address into your browser. Some attempts at phishing are crude and laden with misspellings and awkward phrasings. However, identity thieves are becoming very adept at creating sophisticated emails and faux sites which appear identical to the form and style of a financial institution's logo, font and infrastructure. (Brief sidebar: the IRS never sends you email about your return, refund or rebate!)

MEMORIZE your personal identification numbers (PINs) and passwords. Hide them in safe locations away from prying eyes and hackers. If you have a poor memory and must keep your passwords accessible, consider creating a cheat sheet with the clues instead of the actual passwords. For example, instead of writing down your password of ElvisVermontMaple, write down "1stConcertFavoriteSyrup", or some equally obscure bit of information to hint at the information only you need to know.

Be sure to keep PINs away from the cards they protect, and never carry your PINs in your wallet. Again, the modern world is keeping your memory fuzzy, write clues. If your PIN is 0401, the clue might be "Don't fool me" to stand for the date 04/01, April Fool's Day. When you are given the opportunity to pick your own PIN numbers, NEVER use your birthday or part of your Social Security Number, as identity thieves can find such personal information easily. Aim for numbers representing obscure dates significant for sentimental reasons (like your first kiss) or the combined jersey numbers of your two favorite athletes.

STORE canceled checks, line-of-credit or convenience checks and account statements out of the sight and out of reach of delivery, sales or service workers, pollsters or fundraisers. You may think you'd never let these people past your doorstep, but it's impossible to foresee what might distract your attention, such as the cries of an injured child from the back of the house.

SIGN new credit cards as soon as they arrive and store them in a safe place, away from your home's high traffic areas. If it is necessary for you to carry the card with you, immediately put it in your wallet or card-holder, and guard plastic as diligently as you do your cash.

CHECK your credit history report with all three credit-reporting agencies annually. Request reports from:
  • Equifax 800-685-1111
  • Experian 888-397-3742
  • Trans Union 800-680-7289
Due to Federal regulations, you can even get these reports for free, once per year, by going to AnnualCreditReport.com. This site is an official joint venture of the three reporting agencies. Do not be tempted by similarly-titled web sites which purport to provide you with free credit reports, but first require you to pay for membership or purchase other services.

Review the reports to ascertain that no accounts were fraudulently opened in your name. Also check to make sure that you are not listed as an authorized user for any card to which you do not have access. Report any suspicious or incorrect information to the credit reporting agencies immediately.

Also, if you suspect check fraud, contact the major check verification companies to request that retailers using their databases be notified not to accept stolen checks:
  • Telecheck 800-710-9898
  • Int'l Check Services 800-631-9656 (Note: International Check Services has been acquired by First Data/Telecheck)
  • Equifax 800-437-5120

Your credit history is synonymous with your good name. Identity thieves don't have a shred of decency, so don't give them a shred of evidence to use against you!

In the coming weeks, we'll be talking about how to organize to recover from financial identity theft, and also how to protect yourself against the growing crime of medical identity theft. Until then, to learn more about privacy and identity theft, I direct you to the impressive web site for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, where you can find, among other things:
  • A detailed Privacy Survival Guide
  • Sample letters for protecting your privacy and identity
  • Identity theft fact sheets, quizzes and case studies
and a cornucopia of essential information to make you paranoid, not only about thieves and evil twins, but about your employer, the government, and the person behind you in the checkout line.

Be alert, be cautious, but be sensible. Don't let the bad guys turn your life in to a soap opera!

posted on: 5/20/2008 10:30:00 AM by Julie Bestry
category: Paper

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Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles

by Julie Bestry

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Julie Bestry, President of Best Results Organizing in Chattanooga, TN, is a Certified Professional Organizer®, speaker and author. Julie helps overwhelmed individuals and businesses save time and money, reduce stress and increase productivity through new organizational skills and systems.

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