Your personal information is powerful and profitable.
And that’s why scammers are continually devising new ways to steal the data that make up our credit lives, which allows them to commit identity theft.
Can we protect ourselves?
To an extent, we can, but not as much as we’d like. I’ve learned to fight back when I can.
Not long ago, I bought a table from a major furniture chain. When I went to pick it up, the clerk asked to see my driver’s license. I had a receipt proving payment, but I didn’t object to showing him a form of identification. But he wanted me to hand him the license so he could input the data into a company computer.
“Wait a minute,” I objected. “Why are you storing my driver’s license number?”
His only explanation was that it was company policy. Not going to happen, I complained. Loudly. Persistently.
The line behind me was stacked with folks who were not too happy that I was holding things up. I did not care. I was not giving up this piece of valuable information. The clerk finally got frustrated and called for my table to be brought to the loading dock.
Given the increasing number of corporate data breaches, especially at retail stores, no wonder identity theft has topped the Federal Trade Commission’s annual ranking of consumer complaints — for each of the last 15 years.
“The message from 332,000 identity theft complaints to the FTC is clear: More needs to be done to protect consumers from this fraud,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League.
Also on the rise are “impostor scams,” in which con artists pretend to represent a government agency to steal money directly or obtain personal information. Lots of people have been complaining about telephone calls from scammers impersonating officials from the Internal Revenue Service this tax season.
Javelin Strategy & Research, which has been tracking identity fraud for the past 12 years, recently released its annual report about this type of crime. The company found that fraudsters stole $16 billion from 12.7 million consumers in 2014.
Two interesting trends stood out for me in Javelin’s report, which was sponsored by LifeLock, a company that sells identity-theft protection services.
One involved students and the other the percentage of consumers who have received a data-breach notification.
Javelin found that students typically are not overly concerned about identity fraud. And when they are victimized, they are the least likely to detect it themselves.
Last year, there were several notable corporate data breaches, including JPMorgan Chase and retailers Home Depot, Staples and Michaels.
Two-thirds of identity-theft victims in 2014 had received a data-breach notification in the previous 12 months, according to the Javelin report.
Pointing to the FTC and Javelin reports, the National Consumers League says it wants policymakers to institute reforms to help protect against identity theft. Among other changes, the group wants a national protocol for whenever there is a data breach. The league would also like to see stronger civil and criminal penalties for hacking.
“While consumers can take steps to mitigate their risk of ID theft, they can’t prevent it entirely,” said John Breyault, the vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud for the league. “That’s why we need leaders in Washington to help make sure that the companies that profit from consumers’ data protect it to the greatest extent possible.”
If you are a victim, file a complaint. Letting the government know helps keep track of fraudulent trends. You can file a complaint at www.ftc.gov. Look for the link that says “Consumer Complaint?” You can also call (877) 382-4357.
When it comes to your personal data, you’ve got to take precautions to secure your data. I recently had to fuss at a few friends who didn’t have password protection on their smartphones, a place where many of us store valuable information. My husband and I have also opted in for various account alerts from our financial institutions.
Stay informed. National Consumer Protection Week runs until Saturday. The FTC and other government agencies are putting out a lot of material to help you avoid becoming a victim. Here’s a link for more information: www.ncpw.gov.
Speak up for yourself. And when a company asks for personal data you don’t think it needs, don’t be afraid to object.
Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.