5 ways to protect your bank account from thieves

5 ways to protect your bank account from thievesIdentity thieves are getting smarter and more devious, especially when their victims are affluent. As you may have heard, John Menard, a billionaire hardware chain founder in Wisconsin, was recently targeted by identity thieves.

Back in April, someone called Menard's bank in Eau Claire, Wis., and requested $475,000 be wired to a bank account outside the country. Whoever it was -- he or she hasn't been caught yet -- had Menard's account numbers, passwords and Social Security number. And when the bank called Menard's house to confirm the transaction, the thief was able to intercept the call and give the go-ahead to wire the money.

Unfortunately for the thief, the bank also called Menard's office. Someone there contacted the billionaire, who was in flight at the time and asked that the transaction not go through.

In the old days, robbers stormed banks with guns. If they got away with a lot of money, it was the bank's problem and not yours. Now, of course, identity theft is the preferred method of heisting, which means thieves are targeting specific customers, and bank robberies are suddenly a lot more personal.

So it's never a bad idea too make sure you're doing everything you can to protect your bank account. And while it's arguably pretty easy for a thief to get enough information to break into your account, it's also pretty easy to protect yourself against such attacks. So the next time you do any banking, keep these five steps in mind.

Anytime you type in your password, keep it covered. Some thieves have been known to rig cameras at ATMs, designed to catch you in the act of typing in your password when you're depositing or taking out money. That you may be well aware of, and may have even read about on WalletPop. But my jaw almost dropped when I recently interviewed Tom Patterson, chief security officer of MagTek, one of the world leaders in creating secure electronic payment technology and makes things like, well, those machines you swipe your credit card in.

Patterson told me that some thieves have gone into grocery stores and installed tiny, hidden cameras, designed to catch your fingers typing in your password, at theregister when you pay for products with your debit card." Diabolical, yes. Patterson recommends simply blocking the angles so that nobody can view what you're typing.

When you're designing your hints for online banking information, be clever. Every thief knows that if along with your Social Security number or checking account number, they can learn your mother's maiden name, they can probably steal you blind. So credit card companies and banks in general will often ask you to use other bits of personal information, such as where your favorite vacation spot is, or what high school you went to.

But even that's easy to discover, notes Patterson. "Nowadays, most people's whole life history is available after a couple Google searches," Patterson says. "In about 20 minutes, you can find [someone's] high school, maiden name -- all those things are easily available to thieves."

So if you're allowed to design your own hint, come up with something truly clever, like the name of the Little League team you played on as a kid or the name of your first grade teacher. If you're given a choice of questions, select the oddest one. You may even have to go look up the information yourself, which is a good clue that it's a good clue. After all, if even you aren't sure of the answer...

Get to know your bank teller. When I spoke to Jo Sorbi, security director for Crescent State Bank, a regional bank in North Carolina, about the problems of keeping your identity safe, she said that there's a definite benefit to staying with a bank for a long time. The longer you stay with a bank, the more of a history you have with them, and they can, for instance, check your banking history if some weird purchase comes up that they think looks suspicious.

And while Sorbi's sentiment at first sounded like the standard party line you often hear small banks say ("We know who our customers are," Sorbi said), I thought about how true that really is. If I'm ever stupid enough to put down in print what bank I'm with, I at least have the reassurance that if a thief went to my local branch with my identification and tried to take money out of my account, everyone there would know he was not me. There's something to be said for not being completely invisible at your own bank.

Shred everything. You know what we're talking about: bills and any other paperwork that include personal and account information. Buy a personal shredder for your house, and be diligent about shredding everything that contains critical information that could be used to steal from you. But you didn't really need me to tell you that.

Get a post office box. If you're truly paranoid, Sorbi notes that we often get unsolicited credit card offers in our mailboxes, which can be a vehicle for a thief to try to some mischief. But if you don't want to go to the time, trouble and expense of renting a post office box, Sorbi suggests this instead: "Go online, and take yourself off the unsolicited credit card offers. Tell them you don't want any of this stuff. It won't stop criminals from possibly getting access to your credit information, but it'll give them less to work with if they drive up to your mailbox."

The Direct Marketing Association has a website with a form that you can fill out in order to stop or start certain types of mailings, like credit offers, catalogs, magazine offers and what they call "other mail offers." It won't stop everything forever, but your request will last for five years.

Meanwhile, the credit card industry is doing what it can to keep identity theft from continuing to spiral out of control ($60 billion a year, says Patterson, is stolen by identity thieves every year). For instance, MagTek is working on a device that takes a "magnetic fingerprint" of each credit card, making it so that if a criminal takes a skimming device and copies a credit card strip, a bank can tell that it's a fake.

Banks are also constantly working on their own prevention methods. The Los Angeles Times recently profiled a security expert, Jim Stickey, who boasted about how he's "stolen" information at a thousand banks, and that while it can be time-consuming to pull off, it's easy. As the Times revealed, Stickey disguises himself as a pest-control technician, a fire inspector or some other plausible worker, and once he gets access into the bank, he goes to work stealing customers' personal information (and then he reports his findings to the bank management, which hired him to break in). Stealing information can be done at a bank, clearly, but I'm not sure anyone would say that what Stickey does is easy.

In any case, Stickey's story is a nice example of how seriously banks are taking identity theft and are doing what they can to keep everyone's information safe. Which is why, in a way, we're at more risk than ever.

"Criminals are criminals," says Sorbi. "They're smart but not that smart. They haven't thought of anything that we haven't already become victims to."

Exactly. As banks become more shrewd and fortress-like to career criminals hoping to get a piece of this $60 billion pie, staying vigilant is going to be something that consumers will have to do more of, rather than less. Why? Because it's getting harder to scam banks out of money, so thieves have to go to the more vulnerable, less on-guard customers, people like John Menard -- and you.

Geoff Williams is a regular contributor at WalletPop. He is also the co-author of the book Living Well with Bad Credit.
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