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Guard your Social Security number

The U.S. government estimates that identity theft affects nine million people every year. Identity theft ranges from a minor unauthorized credit purchase to stealing another’s name and good credit to establish new accounts and spend thousands of dollars. There are many steps that can safeguard against this type of crime. One way to protect yourself is to closely guard access to your Social Security number.

Paul Harris is the senior vice president of Investments at Southern Trust Financial Planning in Sarasota. Harris has conducted business seminars on identity theft and recommends releasing a Social Security number only when required by law. Employers, banks, financial services, Medicare and Medicaid use SSNs as specified by federal law. Other companies have chosen to use SSNs because they are unique to each individual. Individuals should protect their SSN and have a right to refuse to provide it when not demanded by law.

Harris says the Federal Trade Commission reports that “on average, victims of identity theft spend 60 hours and $1,180 cleaning up the damage.” More than one in five victims of identity theft experience ongoing problems due to the crime.

Protect yourself. If a SNN is requested, offer other forms of identification in its place. A driver’s license, state-issued ID, passport, or birth certificate may suffice, sometimes in combination with a pay stub or recent statement. “Just make sure,” Harris reminds us, “none of those documents contain your SSN.”

Harris acknowledges that businesses may refuse to accept other forms of ID. “Ask for a supervisor and keep asking, on up the chain of command until you find someone who understands the importance of guarding your SSN and agrees to accept other forms of identification. If that doesn’t work, consider paying cash rather than establishing a credit or billing account or find another company to do business with.”

Many believe that online purchases have driven up the prevalence of identity theft. In many instances, payment by check has led to fraud. A check may be all a thief needs to create a fraudulent bank transfer to his own account. Certainly online payments can expose a similar amount of information, but by making use of the safeguards available, online transactions can be quite secure.

When conducting business online, watch for “https” before the web address, which denotes a secure website. Https sites have a current certificate to assure that data is encrypted, guarding against internet evesdroppers.

Use an online payment service such as Paypal in order to provide payment information just one time for all Internet transactions. If a seller does not provide the promised goods or services, Paypal provides a course of action and will assist in mediation. Payment services may even provide a satisfaction guarantee, refunding lost payments when sellers don’t come through. Another option is to obtain an credit card account with enhanced security for online use. Online transactions can be as secure as face-to-face when basic precautions are followed. As always, start by securing your wireless network, utilizing a firewall and installing anti-virus/anti-spyware. Do not release Social Security or account numbers unless required by law. Watch for “https” when you do provide info, and use a online-secure credit card or respected payment service.

Patty Harshbarger, the owner of Computer Renaissance in Bradenton, can be reached at (941) 753-8277.