I've never had a boring life. Never. The things that happen to me turn out to be dramatic and ripe with juicy seeds that sprout adventure. I love that about my life. I love that I am steeped in such things that novels are made of. So, it's no surprise to me that my recent car theft was not just some junkie on the street trying to find money for the next fix. Well, maybe in some way he was...but, yesterday, as I unraveled the sticky mess of the theft of my identity, I uncovered something right out of a John Grisham novel. What do I do with the knowledge that this simple act of terrorism, one that happened on a busy street on a Sunday in San Francisco, is directly connected to organized crime?
Yeah, I said it. You read that right.
Stolen cars, postal fraud, funds transfers, fraudulent accounts, information hacking, forgery, felonies stacked on felonies...how did I arrive at my conclusion? They all point to one address in San Francisco. A little business that sells passport photos, private mailboxes, copies, a United Stated Post Office, and even a FedEx. Seems innocuous, yes?
As I flashed back to my conversation with the SFPD Bike Cop, I remembered he hinted that the operation behind the swarm of thefts in that area were related to one address. He didn't tell me which one, but said they knew all about it and had been unable to gain access. Things are starting to gel. Somebody even whispered "Russian Mafia" to me a few weeks ago, but I blew it off.
Okay, so maybe the Russians aren't involved, but what if they are?
Look, I don't live in fear. And I'm not trying to scare you. I'm trying to wake you up to what's really going on out there...
Today's my day to camp out at the front office in the Southern Station of the San Francisco Police Department with my reams of documents and evidence to demand a case number. That's Step One for me today. But, as I think about the steps that led me here, I want to share with you some great ideas that you can do for yourself. Before you're a victim.
1. Commit to Ordering Your Free Credit Reports Once Every Year.
This is like changing the battery in your smoke detectors. It's like getting your annual medical check-up. Just do it. Put it on your calendar and do it when you file your taxes, or on your birthday, or some other day once a year. If you feel adventurous, you can set up an online account with each agency and monitor it that way, but honestly, everything starts here. You'd be surprised to know what these Credit Rating Agencies (CRAs) think they know about you. It's a two-edged sword and if you're smart, you'll play the game.
2. Respect the Credit Card.
Don't carry these puppies around with you. Leave them at home. I know, it's tempting to have them close by when you're out and about, but you don't need them. Only carry the basics. Remember this: there are credit and debit cards in your wallet now that have the PIN encoded on the magnetic strip on the back and the bad guys can swipe them with their magic machines and get to your money.
Keep copies of all credit cards in a file at home - back and front. Make copies of your Drivers License, your passport, and any other important document. Keep them safe at home. This will save you tons of time if you ever lose your personal documents. Trust me on this one.
3. Rotate Your Passwords.
Change your passwords regularly. I keep a file safely locked away that has a list of my current passwords. Any thief would need to know where to look and that's not likely. I can get access to it quickly if my memory fails me. This is a hard one because you think it's not that important. Online identity theft is the number one way they get access to your identity, and your money.
4. Open Your Mail. Then Shred It.
It was a basic looking letter from the postal service that arrived in our mailbox informing us that our address had been changed. We get loads of junk mail every single day, but if we didn't review each piece, we would've missed an important red flag.
Once you've reviewed your mail, shred anything with compromising information. Invest in a chipper/shredder. It's one way to safeguard your information. Years ago when I was a fraud investigator, one way to find good information was to go through trash. Seriously. I even have a scar to prove it. It's totally legal once the garbage is placed at the curb, so don't take this for granted. Even if you like your neighbors.
5. Abandon Your Mother's Maiden Name.
Who thought of this? And how did we think this was a good idea? This is easy to uncover, so don't use it. You can request that all credit cards, banks, etc. use a password provided by you. Make it good and personal, one that only has meaning to you, not the whole world. Don't use birthdays, addresses, anything easy. Make it something like the license plate number of the hottie you dated in high school. You know, something like that.
6. Think Like A Criminal.
It's time to stop thinking that this happens to someone else. With this kind of crime on the rise, it's merely mathematics and statistics. It's a cultural cancer and the only cure is education.
Watch your purse and your belongings. Lock your car door when you run in to pay for gas. Don't leave your purse on the back of your chair in a restaurant, stash it between your legs, under the table, or leave it locked in the trunk of your car. Find a tote or purse that has safety built in, like this one.
7. Spread the Word.
Remember to spread the word. Make this a part of normal conversation. It's more important than politics, fashion, or any celebrity gossip. Tell your friends, your loved ones, and especially your children. I can't imagine what their world is going to be like.
Let's keep the conversation going. Please feel free to share your ideas below and don't forget my bold offer....