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Amherst man publishes book on how to avoid identity theft

  • Steve Weisman at his home in Amherst with his book, 50 Ways To Protect Your Identity In A Digital Age.

    Steve Weisman at his home in Amherst with his book, 50 Ways To Protect Your Identity In A Digital Age. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Steve Weisman at his home in Amherst with his book, 50 Ways To Protect Your Identity In A Digital Age.

    Steve Weisman at his home in Amherst with his book, 50 Ways To Protect Your Identity In A Digital Age. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Steve Weisman at his home in Amherst with his book, 50 Ways To Protect Your Identity In A Digital Age.
  • Steve Weisman at his home in Amherst with his book, 50 Ways To Protect Your Identity In A Digital Age.

The holiday season is prime time for a crime that has increased dramatically with the growing popularity of social media and smartphones, according to Amherst attorney Steven Weisman. He’s just published a book called “Fifty Ways to Protect Your Identity in a Digital Age” and has been following this type of crime for 20 years — ever since he was a victim himself.

“Identity theft can be high-tech, low-tech or no-tech,” he said in an interview this week. “Originally it was stealing credit cards, but as computers became more used by the public, the venue for identity theft was made easier. The most frustrating thing is that a lot of it is preventable.”

Many people get e-cards during the holiday season. Weisman recommends steering clear of those that don’t show a recognizable name, or say “from a friend,” because opening them could conceal computer “malware” used by identity thieves.

Weisman suggests buying gift cards only from store employees, and being aware of phone scams, often people claiming to raise money for police or fire department charities.

“Anyone who thinks he’s too smart to get scammed is halfway on the way, because it’s so easy to do,” he said. “As we become more dependent on technology, there’s going to be more identity theft. But if we take some basic steps, we can dramatically reduce our chances of becoming victims.”

Believe Cassandra

Weisman isn’t afraid of scaring people. He identifies with Cassandra, the figure in Greek mythology who warned about the destruction of Troy but wasn’t believed, and whose name has entered the language as a person who predicts misfortune. For all those who think their identities are secure and that a stranger will never rack up debts in their names, he has a message: Cassandra was right.

Weisman, who has lived in Amherst since 1974, teaches law at Bentley University and maintains a private practice out of his home. He operates a website called scamicide.com, which he updates daily with information about the latest schemes, and hosts a radio show on elder law called “A Touch of Grey” that is heard on 50 stations nationwide.

Because so many people buy gifts during the holiday season, they can be vulnerable to identity theft. He recommends using debit cards only at bank ATMs, because the swiping machines that many stores use are easy to reprogram. When writing checks, he recommends against ballpoint pens, preferring “gel pens” because their ink can’t be bleached out.

Weisman cites research claiming that about 70 percent of all identity theft can be traced back to employees stealing personal information. He said there was a 13 percent increase in identity thefts in 2011, largely because of the rise of social media, and a 67 percent increase in the number of Americans affected by data breaches. The states with the worst problems are California, Florida and Arizona, he said.

And it’s no longer mischief from a teenage computer geek in your neighborhood; organized crime has become involved with identity theft, especially of medical information. Almost 1.5 million people became victims of medical identity theft last year, and the cost has been estimated to be as high as $29 billion a year, he said.

SS number key

One of the problems is that the government uses Social Security numbers for Medicare numbers, he said. “Allow an identity thief access to your Social Security number, and in a very short time, you will be victimized,” Weisman said. Thieves can then readily access bank accounts, establish credit and run up debts in another person’s name, he said.

The only times people should give out their Social Security numbers are when opening a bank account, obtaining a credit card or applying for a mortgage, Weisman said. He pays all his bills and does all his banking online, he said.

Identity thieves have been known to go through a person’s trash, and at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade last month, some of the confetti was improperly shredded documents that disclosed personal information, he said. Even newspaper obituaries aren’t sacrosanct; Weisman advises against putting addresses and mother’s maiden names in them.

“With passwords, if it’s in the dictionary, you’re toast,” he said. He recommends picking a long word, throwing in some numbers, and putting exclamation points in. Passwords to avoid are “qwerty,” “iloveyou,” “letmein,” “trustno1” and, of course, “password.”

When filling out security questions, instead of putting in the name of your high school, you should enter a nonsensical word like “blue.”

Weisman said he’s become so familiar with scams that he can predict them before they happen. For example, Superstorm Sandy brought out the scammers who call and say, “I’m from FEMA and need some information from you,” or, “I’m collecting money to help victims.”

Then there are the e-mails and Facebook postings that try to get the unaware to click to see a photo of flooding, and introduce malware if they do. Celebrity deaths have provided identity thieves with a chance to try to get the unsuspecting to click by promising salacious details about Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Steve Jobs and Whitney Houston, he said.

The American Cancer Society is a legitimate charity, while the National Cancer Society is a scam, he said.

Weisman recommends “credit freezes,” which prevent thieves from having access to credit reports even if they have a Social Security number, and accessing those reports only with PIN numbers.

If people have become victims of identity theft, he advises quick action. The police may not be able to help, but it’s important to file a report anyway, he said. If medical information has been stolen, it’s important to put a notation on one’s records stating that they have been corrupted, he said. Weisman’s book contains a chapter of suggested letters for theft victims.

“Do I want to scare people into action? I do,” he said. “I don’t want people to feel they can’t live their lives because of this threat. A meteor might hit us but it’s unlikely, and it’s more likely you’ll be a victim of identity theft. But there are easy steps you can take to protect yourself.”


Ten tips to prevent identity theft

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

1. Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet or purse. 2. Never click on a computer link from a person you don’t know. 3. Maintain the security software on your computer. 4. Be careful putting personal details on Facebook, and don’t “friend” just anyone who asks. 5. Cross-shred documents that contain sensitive information. 6. Pick up new checks …

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