Identity theft is defined as the fraudulent possession and use of an individual's private, identifying information for financial gain. Unless the proper precautions are taken, anyone can be at risk—including you. As a real estate professional, it's important that you're aware of how identity theft occurs and how you can protect yourself and your clients against it, especially elderly consumers who may need additional support. In real estate, identity theft can lead to bigger problems, such as wire and title fraud.
According to Frank Abagnale, author and film subject of "Catch Me If You Can," fraudsters can steal your identity using a variety of documents and personal information, such as your Social Security number, your bank account number and your credit card number, all of which are mentioned in his Fraud Bulletin Vol. 15. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
Ramp Up Your Internet and Computer Security
At the very least, double-check that your computer has the proper security software installed and that it's up-to-date. While this isn't a one-stop solution to protecting against identity theft, it is definitely a major step in the right direction. Next, make sure you're safely navigating the internet. Don't visit insecure websites, and be careful when using your credit card to make online purchases; this is especially important for your clients. Advise them not to purchase anything or send money related to their real estate transaction unless they have confirmed it with you via phone or face-to-face conversation. There are too many fraudulent emails out there, and they can do a lot of damage.
Shred Sensitive Information
It's not all about the cyber world. Real estate is an industry that deals with a lot of paperwork. Protect your clients and yourself by shredding anything that has sensitive account or personal information on it. While those who visit your home are most likely trusted individuals, these documents ultimately land in the trash, where they are then available to the public.
Protect Your Social Security Number
Make sure this number doesn't get into anyone's hands except trusted family members. Once fraudsters have your Social Security number, they are well on their way to stealing your identity. Be careful of how you are using this number. While many online applications ask for this information, you need to ensure that you're on a secure network and site before entering the number. Also, don't keep this information saved on your computer, and don't let sites auto-save it on their forms, either. Keep your Social Security card hidden away at home and shred any documents or paperwork that include this information.
Monitor Your Credit
If something does happen and your identity is at risk, it's better to know sooner than later. You can prevent further damage by keeping an eye on your credit score and all financial accounts. Report any unusual activity as soon as you see it, and keep a written record of everything should you need to prove your identity was stolen to fight the fraudulent charges. Keep companies that hold your financial accounts informed of the situation, as well.
If you think you may be at risk of identity theft, there are various resources at your disposal. Call the three major credit reporting agencies—Equifax®, ExperianSM and TransUnion®—and put a freeze on your accounts. According to Abagnale's bulletin, you can also reach out to the following organizations:
- Federal Trade Commission
- Privacy Guard
- Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
- Fight Identity Theft
- Identity Theft Resource Center
- National White Collar Crime Center
- Social Security Administration
- U.S. Postal Service
The National Association of REALTORS® provides further tips on protecting against identity theft and cyber fraud on its nar.realtor/Safety page. According to NAR, always ask questions, have your name removed from credit bureau marketing lists, and click with caution when it comes to using the internet. It's always a good time to increase your cyber security and reduce liability.
Find more fraud prevention tips, strategies and trends in Housecall's Cyber Crime series.