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Editorial: Protect your identity

Steve Weisman at his home in Amherst with his book, 50 Ways To Protect Your Identity In A Digital Age.

Steve Weisman at his home in Amherst with his book, 50 Ways To Protect Your Identity In A Digital Age.

The rise in social media has made the world seem a smaller place by providing connections among people who might otherwise feel like strangers. Sadly, that virtual closeness does have a downside. In this dizzyingly technological age, there is the growing threat of identity theft.

And this time of year — with e-cards, end-of-year fund drives and the purchase of gifts and gift cards online — offers a holiday bounty for identity thieves.

Still, by taking precautions without becoming unduly alarmed or paranoid, people can keep a safer distance from those who seek to steal and use another person’s identity.

Amherst attorney Steven Weisman learned the hard way by falling prey to an identity theft scam 20 years ago. He has made it his mission to help others avoid his fate, especially in our digital era.

Weisman rightly notes that identity theft can be high-tech or low-tech. What was once a physical act involving the actual theft of a credit card can now take place in a virtual netherworld.

Identity theft is a crime that can turn a victim’s world upside down and take months to unravel and then repair.

Identity thieves can rack up debts in someone else’s name and ruin someone’s credit rating for years to come.

One of the ways virtual predators try to steal another person’s identity is by obtaining their bank account or Social Security numbers. Weisman notes that the only times people should give out their Social Security numbers are to open a bank account, get a credit card or apply for a mortgage — and then only to people they know to be legitimate.

An estimated 1.5 million people became victims of medical identity theft last year, totalling up at a cost of an estimated $29 billion a year.

Here are suggestions to protect yourself against identity theft:

∎ Use debit cards only at bank ATMs.

∎ Don’t carry Social Security cards in wallets.

∎ Don’t give out personal information over the phone to someone who calls you.

∎ Shred (and cross-shred) papers with personal information.

∎ Check your credit report at least yearly. The three credit-reporting agencies are required to provide one report each per year.

∎ Don’t be too obvious in picking passwords.

∎ Don’t accept “friend” requests on Facebook unless you really know the person.

∎ Be careful what personal information you put on Facebook.

∎ Don’t click on a computer link of someone you don’t know.

∎ If medical information has been stolen, put a notation in your records about the corruption.

If that all seems like common sense to you, congratulations. You’ve prepared yourself. But it is easy to make small mistakes that can be costly later.

Far too often we see stories about well-meaning people who fell for scams new and old, whether someone’s identity was on the block or only some of their hard-earned cash.

We applaud Steven Weisman for speaking out on this problem from Amherst and hope his words and advice travel widely.

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