Hijacked identity

Thieves aren’t always after your cargo. Some prey on personal numbers and data. Here’s how to protect yourself.

When a Prime Inc. truck stolen on Christmas Day was found only 10 miles away and in less than eight hours, the carrier’s security director, Jamie Morton, was relieved.

But the problems had only started for the truck’s driver, who lost five hours of work and was docked pay because of the load’s late delivery. Worst of all, he discovered several personal items were stolen, including I.D. numbers stored in a laptop and on paperwork in the cab.

The driver spent an additional day renewing his I.D. cards and credentials. Although those are restored, Morton says the driver remains worried that the thief will misuse his personal information months from now.

Loss from identity theft totals $50 billion annually in the United States, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Long-haul truckers suffer more than their fair share of that because they often are away from home and out of their trucks so much. Morton and other trucking security experts advise drivers to safeguard their personal identity as closely as their cargo.

Trucker Michael Goode of Byhalia, Miss., a former deputy sheriff, says paying attention to details on the road and at truck stops is important to thwarting crooks. When stopping for a meal and fuel, stay alert and be discreet with cash and credit cards, he urges.

“You’re never standing in line by yourself,” he says. “There are always eight or nine people behind you. And when you have checks to cash, cash them in different places. Don’t pull out a lot of cash just to be showing it.”

Goode keeps personal credit cards at home when on the road and uses company credit cards at dealers only to buy parts.

To keep his personal information secure, 40-year veteran trucker Edward Money of Pocahontas, Ark., often changes his computer passwords. During a recent trip, Money was both perturbed and pleased when he tried to access his bank account. Because he was using a different Internet access, three security questions popped up. He couldn’t remember the answers and was temporarily locked out of his own account.

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“That’s pretty secure,” Money said. “But it doesn’t take much for someone to get a credit card or fuel card number.”

Money advises truckers to double-check their wallets for their credit cards before leaving a stop. He recalls a chat with an Arkansas truck stop cashier.

“I saw the clerk pull out a whole handful of credit cards that truckers had forgotten,” Money says. Further amazing the clerk was the tendency of truckers to wait until their return trip to check on their cards. “By the time you get back, it might be too late,” Money says.

Owner-operators with multiple trucks may want to develop a formal security plan, says Carlyle Kuhns, owner of C.W.K. Transport in Goshen, Ind. He stays abreast of his seven drivers’ credit card transactions online and makes sure the credit company quickly detects changes in spending patterns.

He also writes “CHECK I.D.” with a permanent marker on the back of all his drivers’ credit cards.

“I’m surprised at the number of fuel attendants and cashiers that still don’t check the I.D. with the driver’s license,” he says. “A lot of them do check, but they tell me that people get offended when asked. I just don’t think you can be too careful.”

One of the best ways to safeguard your identity is to avoid giving out your Social Security number, Morton says, even though shippers and receivers often ask for it.

“We work with companies and say, ‘Hey, our drivers have driver I.D.’s, and if you need to make a copy, then use the company-issued I.D. that doesn’t have the Social Security number on it,” Morton says.

Being asked for Social Security numbers is indeed a problem, says Tom Weakley, director of operations at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

“It doesn’t do any good to protest there at the guard shack,” Weakley says. “We’ve talked to some companies about it.” He recommends that owner-operators and carriers ask why Social Security numbers must be recorded. Asking would “make the companies more aware of the risks to drivers,” Weakley says.

He also suggests companies use driver identification numbers different from Social Security numbers. When Social Security numbers must be divulged, Weakley says, they should be encrypted – translated electronically into a code that only trusted parties can read.

Kuhn urges truckers to keep Social Security numbers at home rather than written on a wallet card or stored on a laptop computer in the cab.

If you become a victim of identity theft, credit card providers can quickly close accounts. But recovering stolen funds is difficult, and getting a new driver’s license can mean days off the job, says Dale Schueffner, vice president of agency services at Northland Insurance in St. Paul, Minn.

Northland and its parent company, Travelers Insurance, added coverage of identity theft expenses to all Northland Transportation policy holders at no extra cost. Northland reimburses $2,500 for costs including lost wages, day care, notary publics and certified mail.

Separate identity theft policies, which can be much more comprehensive, are usually inefficient, according to Consumer Reports. Up to $180 a year buys up to $25,000 in coverage, though it omits unauthorized charges or funds taken from accounts, the magazine reports.

Like other financial advisers, insurance experts recommend that credit reports be checked regularly. A credit report can alert you to problems you’re not aware of. Federal law entitles you to one free report a year from each of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

To help prevent theft of credit cards, identification and cargo, Morton meets weekly with drivers to discuss good habits such as shutting off the engine, removing the key from the ignition, locking the trailer and cab with double locks if possible, and parking in well-lighted lots. The company also requires an in-depth orientation session for rookies on protecting credit card and personal identity numbers.

“Sometimes I sound like a broken record,” Morton says. “But it does work out. Drivers become very aware. This day and age requires it.”

Stop! Thief!
Here are tips for minimizing the risk of identity theft on the road and at home:

  • Keep a list of all credit card and bank account numbers, as well as the institutions’ 24-hour emergency phone numbers, in a secure place at home and in your truck or on your person. Call immediately if fraud occurs.
  • Do not carry a Social Security card or birth certificate in your wallet or purse.
  • Have re-ordered checks sent to your bank or a post office box instead of your home address.
  • Order a credit card report annually from at least one of the three credit bureaus and carefully review it.
  • If you conduct business online, use your own computer. A public computer is less secure, as is wireless Internet.
  • Monitor mail, bank statements, cell phone bills and credit card bills for evidence of unauthorized charges.
  • Never write your Social Security number or your credit card number on checks when making a payment.
  • Never throw away canceled checks or credit card receipts without first shredding them.
  • Do not leave envelopes containing checks in your mailbox. Mail them at a post office or a public mailbox.
  • Install a locked mailbox or use a post office box.
  • Be discreet and cautious about giving out credit card numbers or any personal information. Avoid divulging credit card numbers over the phone.
  • Have your name, address and phone number removed from any mailing and phone lists by contacting the Direct Marketing Association’s Mail Preference Service, Customer Service Department, (212) 790-1500. To opt out of pre-screened credit card and insurance offers, call (888) 567-8688 or visit www.optoutprescreen.com To have your name removed from telephone calling lists, call the Do Not Call Registry at (888) 382-1222 or register online at www.donotcall.gov.

If your identity is stolen