The Federal Trade Commission estimates that each year millions of Americans are victimized by identity thieves ultimately costing the credit industry billions of dollars. Identity theft occurs when a criminal steals your name, Social Security number, or other significant identifiers and utilizes the information without your knowledge or permission. The thief can use your information to obtain credit, employment, or other services. We have even seen many cases where the thief gets arrested for a crime and gives the true person's name and information. This type of activity results in the victim having a criminal record and sometimes warrants issued for their arrest as a result of the initial charges.
While identity theft is considered one of the fastest growing crimes in the country, the first documented case can actually be traced back to the book of Genesis with the story of Esau and Jacob. In that case, Esau, as the first born, was entitled to all of the family's riches. Jacob, the second born, conspired with their mother to trick the father who was dying into believing that he was actually blessing Esau. The tools utilized to trick the father with failing eye sight were a pot of stew, Esau’s coat, and goat fur to simulate the very hairy arms of Esau. The scheme worked and the father unknowingly blessed Jacob. That is identity theft in its simplest form. Today the concept is the same but the tools have changed. Computers, Social Security numbers, credit card skimmers, and wireless intercept tools are being used by perpetrators such as Albert Gonzalez, who was charged with the theft of approximately 130 million credit/debit cards. The truly scary part is that identity theft can happen to anyone, anyplace, at anytime. In fact it could happen at your business.
Now that you are extremely concerned about the security of your own personal information the question becomes, "how do we protect ourselves" and equally as important as business owners “how do we protect our customers?” As business owners we have a responsibility to protect our customers and the information they entrust to us. What steps do we take to maintain this level of responsibility and what can we do to help protect our customers from becoming the victim of identity theft. First, and foremost we have to treat their information as if it were our own. Secondly, we need to create standard business practices that ensure the security of the information we handle on a daily basis. We can no longer afford to be a business that simply puts our customer’s vital information in a filing folder or banker’s box-type storage system. We have to become “guardians” of the information we have. Below are a number of steps that businesses can take to make sure their customers are not only protected but are reassured that their information is protected as well.
1-Maintain a locked filing system for customers identifying information that has limited access.
2-Utilize a “shredding company” that has locked shred boxes
3-Give customers the option of personally retaining paper applications and other documents that have already been entered into the computer system
4-Utilize a locked mailing station for distributing customers documents through the mail
5-If in the restaurant industry, give customers the option to accompany the waiter/waitress to the Point of Sale Terminal (cash register) instead of giving their credit card to the server
6-Limit the amount of identifying information your business retains or requires.
7-Limit the number of employees that have access to the information.
8-Frequently purge historical files by utilizing proper destruction measures
9-Conduct a “Business Procedure Audit” to determine record retention measures that are not in place.
Robert Wayne Ivey is a veteran police officer specializing in identity theft and is a law enforcement liaison for LifeLock.