Fraud expert Sid Kirchheimer says the most basic ways to protect yourself from identity theft are well known: Check your credit history at least once a year with each of the major credit reporting bureaus. Shred with a cross-cut (or "confetti") shredder all incoming mail with any sensitive information: your name, address, account information, Social Security number and especially "convenience checks" and new credit card offers. Never carry your Social Security card or PIN codes in your wallet. Carefully read bank, credit card and even telephone statements each month. What else can you do to keep the identity wolves from your door?
Shield Your Fortune with a $2 Pen
All it takes to empty your bank account is a single signed check stolen from your unlocked mailbox and some acetone—the active ingredient in nail polish remover. (Conveniently for criminals, pure acetone is also available in the paint department of home improvement centers.)
Here's how the scam goes down: The crook steals mail likely to contain a signed check—envelopes addressed to the phone or electric company are easy pickings. He or she then removes your check, puts a piece of cellophane tape over the front and back of your signature, and places the check in a pan of acetone. This process—known as "check washing"—takes only about 30 minutes to rinse everything but the printer's ink from the check. Your tape-covered John Hancock and the printer-inked information, of course, remain intact. The check is then blow-dried and flattened in a book, the tape is carefully peeled away and voilà —a blank check signed by you, replete with your name, address and bank account information.
How to Protect Yourself
Buy yourself a safe pen. One type of ink—the kind in gel pens manufactured by Uni-ball—resists acetone or other chemicals used in check washing.