How to protect yourself from identity theft

How to protect yourself from identity theft

Quick Note:  For those of you with “Retirement Planning” on your New Year’s Resolution list, I extended the $60 discount on The Ideal Retirement Design Guide through January 31st.

I have a retired client—let’s call him Mark—who was going on a trip and he asked his neighbor to water his plants and keep an eye on his house while he was gone.  A year later, Mark was making a big purchase at a home improvement store and he decided to apply for a store credit card.  His application was denied.  This surprised him because he only had one other credit card which he hardly ever used and always paid in full.  A little investigation revealed that he actually had five credit cards—four of which he knew nothing about and that were completely maxed out.

By now I’m sure you’ve guessed that his neighbor did more than water the plants.  He dug through Mark’s belongings and pieced together information like his date of birth, Social Security number and mother’s maiden name and then started firing off credit card applications (American Express: Don’t leave your neighbor’s home without it.).  He had the bills sent to his office address and always made the minimum payment.  This meant that the accounts weren’t delinquent, but also meant that any potential day of reckoning was years away.

Anyone can be the victim of identity theft, but retirees are particularly vulnerable.  They generally have good credit and available resources (they’re retired after all), both of which can be tempting targets for thieves.  Not only that, but our memory can diminish as we age, a situation that criminals are more than happy to try to exploit.  So what exactly is identity theft and how can you protect yourself or a loved one?  What should you do if someone steals your identity?  Are you liable for any fraudulent debts?  How can you clear your name?

What is identity theft?

Identity theft is when someone uses your personal information to fraudulently do things like take out a loan, obtain I.D., open a credit card or gain access to your bank accounts.

Criminals use a number of tricks in their efforts to gain access to your personal information.  They steal mail, go through your personal belongings (like Mark’s neighbor), scour the Internet for personal information, send “Phishing” emails and hack into computers to name a few.

The longer a criminal is using your identity, the more damage he can do, so it’s important to keep your eyes open for certain red flags such as money missing from your accounts, calls from debt collectors about debts you know nothing about, unusual charges on your credit card statements or denial of credit.  Any of those could indicate problems.

What should I do if my identity is stolen?

As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to act quickly if you find a problem.  Begin by placing a fraud alert on your credit report with the different credit bureaus.  This will prevent thieves from causing further damage by opening new accounts.  You can do this by phone or at their websites:




Once you notify one agency, they are required to notify the others.  The fraud alert will last for 90 days, but for more severe cases you can extend that to seven years by filing additional paperwork.  After notifying the agencies, download a free copy of your credit report and go through it to identify any fraudulent activity or inaccurate information.

Next, file a police report and obtain a copy that you can use to verify your claims as you work to fix the problems caused by the theft.  In addition to the police report, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  They maintain a large identity theft database which they use to assist law enforcement and affected companies with identity theft investigations.  You can file a complaint at or by calling 1-877-438-4338.  One of the forms they will have you fill out will be the Identity Theft Affidavit, which you can use with affected companies to begin fixing any problems.

Once you have filed the fraud alert, the police report, the FTC report and identified the affected accounts, contact each company holding those accounts so you can notify them of the fraud and have the accounts frozen and closed.  If your bank account or credit card was affected, you will need to open new accounts.  Be sure to update your passwords or personal identification numbers in case those were also compromised.  Once you have the problems fixed, it’s a good idea to work with the credit bureaus to clean up your credit report by having any entries related to the fraud removed from your report.

Am I liable for the fraud?

One of the first questions people often have when it comes to identity theft is “What am I liable for?”  The answer depends on what form the fraud took and how quickly it is reported.  You are generally responsible for $50 per card in unauthorized credit card transactions as long as you report the fraud within 60 days of receiving the bill with the fraudulent charges.  Debit cards are a bit more stringent.  You have only 2 days to report unauthorized withdrawals or transfers to maintain the same $50 limit of liability.  Anything between 2 and 60 days will likely mean you’re responsible for up to $500 in unauthorized transfers.  Anything beyond that and you risk losing the money.  Not only do debit cards have a tighter reporting window, but you will also likely be without the money that was stolen until the bank can straighten things out.  For those reasons, it may be worth choosing your credit card over your debit card when making purchases.

What can you do to protect yourself from identity theft?

There are several things that you can do to make it difficult for thieves to steal your identity.  First and foremost, keep a tight rein on all of your personal information (e.g. Social Security number, date of birth, etc.).  If you’re making online purchases or using online banking, make sure that you use strong passwords and that your computer has all of the latest security updates downloaded and installed.  Run regular scans to detect any viruses or malware.

You can also place a security freeze on your credit report which will prevent credit agencies from releasing any information when they receive requests from banks or credit cards without first getting your authorization.  As a result, any unauthorized application or request for a new account gets denied because the company can’t obtain the information it needs.

Finally, you might also consider signing up for a service like LifeLock to help you monitor your credit and notify you of any suspicious activity.  These companies will also help fix any damage done by identity thieves.  A paid service can be a good option (and give you peace of mind) if you are ever the victim of a large breach (e.g. Target stores, the Chinese hacking breach of the Office of Personnel Management, etc.) and want to keep a an eye out for anyone trying to misuse the compromised data.

Year end wrap up

Year end wrap up

Well that year went by fast!  It seems like just yesterday that Punxatawney Phil was telling us that spring was almost here and now Ryan Seacrest is warming up in Times Square to help us bid adieu to 2015.

How was your year?  For me it was great in a lot of ways and challenging in a lot of ways.  The positive things came in the form of the usual suspects: family, friends, travel, work, good books, etc.  The negative things had a common theme: busyness.  In some ways, 2015 felt like a real life game of Whack-A-Mole.  When life starts to feel like that it’s important to reflect on the causes and do what it takes to refocus your efforts on the essential.  I’ve been doing that for the last several weeks and am looking forward to starting the New Year off well.  My mantra is “Less But Better.”  That will mean some great new things here at Intentional Retirement so stay tuned.

Before I sign off for the year, here’s a quick round up of a few of the most popular posts of 2015 in case you missed them:

Well, that should just about do it for 2015.  Oh yeah, “one more thing” as Steve Jobs was fond of saying.  We need to wrap up our Bucket List giveaway for the year.  I’ve been periodically writing articles about bucket list items and doing little giveaways with them.  The grand prize is a $1,000 airline voucher and that goes to…drumroll…Scott over on our email subscriber list.  Congrats Scott!  I’ll be in touch with the details.  Enjoy the travel and best wishes to all of you for the New Year.

~ Joe

Thoughts on losing a loved one

Thoughts on losing a loved one

Hi everyone. Sorry it’s been a bit since I’ve written. Two weeks ago today we had my extended family over for lunch at our house to celebrate my mom and brother’s birthdays. My 89 year-old grandpa was there, as he was most times when we had family get-togethers. You may remember him from this post when I wrote about the time we flew out to Chicago to see a Cubs game on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Anyway, everyone was over at our house for lunch and we spent several hours talking and laughing over a great meal. My grandpa was the most talkative of the bunch, sharing stories about high school, serving in World War II and traveling the U.S. on epic road trips with his wife and kids. He was sharp and funny and charming, just like he has always been. When he left I hugged him, kissed him on the forehead and walked him out to his car. That night he died peacefully in his sleep. You just never know when the last time you see a person is going to be the last time (in this life anyway) that you will ever see that person.

I’ve written about Time before and how it has a way of quietly opening doors of opportunity early in life. Then, just as quietly, it starts to close them. Each year Time closes 52 doors marked “Weekends,” one marked “Christmas” and one marked “Birthdays.”  You make decisions that put you into a certain career or location and the doors that you didn’t choose get closed.  Your physical abilities change and doors that were wide open in your 20s are now marked “Do Not Enter.”  Your kids grow up and doors like “Bike Riding 101” and “Family Road Trip” quietly click shut.  And yes, you lose a friend or a family member and the doors to those relationships close for good.

We can choose to be sad about those doors closing or we can constantly remind ourselves to make the most out of the time, opportunities and relationships that we still have so we won’t have any regrets when they’re gone. I certainly choose the latter and I know many of you feel the same way. Thanks for following along and for being a part of a great community of readers who want to live intentionally. Have a great weekend and I’ll get back to my normal writing schedule next week.

~ Joe

Where were you when…

Where were you when…

Do you remember where you were 11 years ago on September 11, 2001?  I was on an airplane.  In hindsight, not the best place to be.

You see, my grandpa is a huge Chicago Cubs fan.  One day we were talking baseball and I said “We should go to Wrigley sometime for a game.”

Since he was pretty frugal and, to my knowledge, had only been on an airplane one other time in his life (to my wedding in Alaska), I expected some resistance.  “Too expensive,” he said.

“What if I found us a deal?”  I asked.  That got his interest, probably because his instinct for a deal was second only to his instinct to spend nothing whatsoever.  I asked him how much he’d be willing to spend on tickets to a game.  He thought about it and said it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, so he’d be willing to spend up to $25 per seat so we could get really good seats.

I thought that was a fair price, assuming we could find a time machine that would transport us back to 1950s Chicago, so I told him I would handle it.

I bought the tickets (see above) from a season ticket holder for $250, booked our airfare and lined up a hotel.  I told him I was able find a good deal, so I would cover the costs, but he insisted on giving me $28 for his ticket (the face amount printed on each ticket).  A few weeks later we were on a plane to Chicago.  We landed at O’Hare and boarded the ‘L’ to take us into town.

While on the train, the passenger across from us got a call on his cell phone.  When he hung up he told us “That was my wife.  She said a plane just hit the World Trade Center.”

The picture in my mind was of a Cessna getting off course and hitting one of the towers, so we didn’t really think that much more about it.  When we got into town we hailed a cab and realized that it was much more than a small plane.  The driver had the radio on and the announcer was saying that both towers had been hit by commercial airplanes and that unconfirmed reports were coming in that there were other planes in the air that were not responding and possibly heading for Washington, D.C.

We got to our hotel and no rooms were available because no one was checking out, so we walked around the corner to a restaurant to grab some breakfast.  Several televisions were on, but the tables facing them were full, so we took a seat over in the corner.  A loud gasp alerted us when the first building fell.

I tried to call my wife, but the circuits were jammed.  I finally got through later that morning and let her know that we were ok.  The games were obviously cancelled and all flights were grounded.  There wasn’t a rental car anywhere to be found in the city and several people in our hotel actually went to car dealerships and bought cars so they could get home.

Each day we would walk to the rental car office and wait in line in hopes that there would a car.  By the time we got one, our two day trip had turned into five and we came home to a much different world than the one we had left just a few days earlier.

Thousands of people had died senselessly, our country would be in two different wars within a short period of time and the events of that Tuesday in September would have a profound impact on the world for years to come.

The time we have in this life is exceedingly short.  You never know when a terrible tragedy, a frightening diagnosis or an unforeseen circumstance is going to come along and make it even shorter.  As you think back to that day eleven years ago, use it as a reminder to be intentional with each day that you’re given.


Kindle Touch Giveaway

Kindle Touch Giveaway

 I wanted you, my loyal, long suffering readers to be the first to know that I just launched a Facebook page for Intentional Retirement.  To help spread the word about the page I’m giving away an Amazon Kindle Touch to one lucky person who “Likes” the page.

Here’s how it works.  Everyone who goes to and clicks “Like” will be entered into the contest.  On Tax day (April 17 this year), I will draw a name at random from our deep pool of attractive and above average readers and send that person a new Kindle Touch.  Pretty much the only caveat is that at least 100 people need to “Like” the page.  That way you have an incentive to tell people about it rather than keeping it to yourself to increase your odds of winning.

Legal Mumbo Jumbo: Void where prohibited.  No purchase necessary, Etc. Etc.

Let’s review:

1)      Go to and click “Like”

2)      Tell your Facebook friends to do the same

3)      Win a shiny new Kindle

Thanks for reading and good luck!


A little something for you on Valentine’s Day

A little something for you on Valentine’s Day

Good morning all.  Happy Valentine’s Day!  Have I told you lately how grateful I am for each of you?  Well, I am.  To say thanks for being a loyal reader and to have a little fun, I thought I’d do an impromptu Valentine’s Day Contest.

The prize?  I’m giving away 20 signed copies of my book The Bell Lap: The 8 Biggest Mistakes to Avoid as You Approach Retirement.

How to enter?  Simple.  Just email your name and mailing address to  I’ll randomly draw 20 emails from those I receive by this Friday at 10 am and mail those 20 people a signed copy of my book.

Legal mumbo jumbo:  Your contact information will never be sold or shared.  No purchase necessary.  Void where prohibited.  Etc., etc.

Good luck to all!  Have a great day.