November 13, 2012

Be wary of identity theft and scams following a weather disaster

Trisha Gedon
The Express-Star

— STILLWATER, Okla. – Many people along the East coast are dealing with massive destruction left behind after the wrath of Hurricane Sandy.

Not only are families dealing with the loss of their homes, and in some cases, entire neighborhoods, they need to keep in mind there is a greater risk of identity theft during these chaotic times, said Sissy Osteen, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension resource management specialist.

“Natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes and floods leave an amazing amount of destruction in their paths. In many cases, personal documents such as birth certificates, Social Security cards or driver’s licenses are destroyed and disaster victims are left to start rebuilding their lives from scratch,” Osteen said. “When it comes time to prove who you are, you need some sort of documentation. Unfortunately, it’s times like this that people who prey upon the misfortunes of others can take advantage of those who have already lost so much.”

The Identity Theft Resource Center recommends everyone take a few minutes to photocopy all important documents. It is a good idea to store the originals someplace such as a safe deposit box and keep the copies in a portable locked box that can quickly be scooped up and taken with you to a shelter. Make copies of everything in your wallet, including your driver’s license and sentimental photos. Other important papers to consider include passports, important legal documents, adoption papers, Social Security cards or immigration papers. Also, be sure to program your insurance company’s phone number into your cell phone.

Osteen said if your wallet or purse is missing after a storm you will still have access to important information in a lockbox.

“Another idea is to scan copies of all your important paperwork and store it on either a portable hard drive for your computer or a zip or flash drive. These are easy to grab on your way to the shelter and they are capable of holding a lot of information. Better still, keep the flash drive on your key chain or find a cloud storage solution that doesn't even require that you keep the files in a material form.” she said. “Consider videoing all of your belongings in your home as well. This will come in handy when it’s time to deal with the insurance company.”

Something else consumers should be aware of is a phishing scam. Be wary of any caller who says they are representing a company that has lost your personal data.

Make sure you have a hard copy or scanned copy of all important phone numbers. In today’s society everyone simply stores phone numbers in their cell phones. This will not do you any good in the event your phone battery goes down and you do not have access to electricity so you can charge it.

“Going through a weather crisis and losing your home and possessions is hard enough. Take some extra precautions and simple steps to protect what you can so that you don’t have to rebuild your identity along with your home,” Osteen said.