Several years ago, I watched in amazement when the CEO of a major identity theft protection firm, appeared in a series of commercials waving his Social Security card in the air, parading his Social Security number on a billboard through heavily populated urban areas and screaming his SSN through a bullhorn as a challenge to those who believed that he couldn’t protect it. As a result, he couldn’t protect it and became a 13-time victim of the crime. That’s what happens when you knowingly, willingly, almost joyfully put yourself out there as a target for hackers and identity thieves.
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Most recently, I noticed another person put himself out there in somewhat similar fashion. Our would-be role model gleefully announced to the public that he had achieved the perfect credit score. According to a news release that he issued for public consumption, along with a screen shot of the credit score that he got for free with his Discover card statement, this exercise in self-aggrandizement was inspired by his desire to “motivate, inspire and educate others; it is not intended to brag.”
When our correspondent, Christine DiGangi wrote a piece chiding the less-than-modest declaration of perfection, since anything above 800 is relatively meaningless in the quest for getting the most out of credit opportunities, the CEO of a consumer reporting company (our 850 man) – or his representatives -- responded:
“It should come as no surprise that Christine DiGangi is asking everyone else to set their personal credit goal below the standard of excellence. She creates distractions because she has never obtained a perfect score. It's very likely she never will because she doesn't want to work hard and dedicate herself. Instead she and the other "experts" go out of their way to minimize success because they're afraid others will continue to raise the bar and beat them at their own game.”
First, I’d wager that the author of that comment isn’t familiar with the breadth of DiGangi’s work educating consumers on the subject of credit, nor did he carefully read her column. The real point here is not to dampen anyone’s desire to strive for perfection in everything they do, but rather to illustrate that striving for a perfect credit score is not a good use of time. That doesn’t mean that each of us shouldn’t strive for excellent credit, and work hard to achieve it. But striving for a perfect credit score seems to us more like an obsession – one that provides no real benefit -- rather than a reasonable goal. If you don’t believe us, read this column titled, "Credit Score Obsessed? Don’t Be.” It’s by Barrett Burns, the CEO of VantageScore Solutions, one of the biggest credit scoring companies there is.
Beyond all that, the abovementioned holder of the 850 credit score should consider the perils of oversharing. Because of the environment in which we live, openly providing any information that can lead fraudsters and cyber ninjas to our doorstep is unwise, demonstrates a dangerous lack of self-protection, and puts us in harm’s way. While the CEO may have legitimately wanted to inspire people to achieve perfection, in doing so he became an ideal target of an identity thief. That kind of over-sharing isn’t even close to the worst example we’ve heard of, but it’s certainly inadvisable.
Consider some other, even more extreme examples of people needlessly putting their credit in jeopardy:
1. The delegate to the last Democratic National Convention who was so ebullient about the party’s position on the expansion of health care that she couldn’t restrain herself from waving her Medicare card into a network camera, boldly – and unwisely – flashing her Medicare number (incidentally her Social Security Number) for all the world to see.
2. The countless individuals who, while in the grips of delirium, feel compelled to take selfies holding their recently acquired licenses, credit and debit cards or bank and credit card statements (inadvertently displaying account information) announcing to the rest of civilization that they have either acquired something of value, or extinguished debt.
3. Fashion hounds who will eagerly scoop up the latest rage – clear handbags (I am sure to be closely followed by clear wallets) – and then fill them with all form of credit, debit or Social Security cards, not to mention their driver’s licenses.
4. People who have an unquenchable thirst for receiving birthday greetings from thousands of “friends,” family, fans as well as fraudsters desiring to want to share the joy of passing yet another age milestone by posting their full birthdays in every social networking scenario imaginable.
5. Folks who are compelled to announce to the world on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter -- not to mention countless dating sites -- the most intimate details of their upcoming vacation, including the date of their departure, their itinerary and their return date. And then, in case anyone missed it, a real-time chronicle of where they are, what they are doing, the food groups they are consuming and shots of their room and the view they are enjoying when standing on their balcony.
While these examples are highlights, these folks are not alone by any means. Most of us have been thoughtless about our identities and over-sharing at one time or another. Maybe you carry your Social Security card in your purse or wallet. Or perhaps you provide your Social Security number to anyone of apparent authority who requests it. Or you click on that random link in an email that just doesn’t seem right, which leads to malware infecting your computer and sucking up scads of personal information.
If you’re worried that you’ve made one of these or other mistakes and put your identity at risk, you’re not alone, and you’re not without recourse. Take advantage of the free credit reports to which you are entitled at AnnualCreditReport.com. Use sites like Credit.com, where you can get a free look at your credit and two free credit scores that are updated monthly. Check your credit and bank accounts for a few minutes each day to ensure that all transactions you see are correct. Enroll in free transactional credit- and debit card-monitoring programs offered by your credit union, bank, or credit card company. Shred your most sensitive documents; properly secure your computer and smartphone; guard sensitive information from people who contact you through a phone call, text or email without confirming their legitimacy; and stay away from unfamiliar links or photographs sent to you by people you either don't know or vaguely think you know. And contact your insurance agent, bank, credit union or HR Department at work to see if they offer either a free or reasonably priced identity theft resolution program to assist you in the event you suffer a personal compromise.
In a world where breaches (exemplified by “Heartbleed,” Target and all stripe of individual, corporate and government database compromise) and identity theft have become the third certainty in life, jealously guarding our privacy must be our individual missions. While I enjoy a good marketing gambit, as well as saluting those who achieve perfection, or who have accomplished a meaningful milestone, discretion being the better part of valor requires that we become more covetous of our personal identifying information and better protect ourselves from those who would exploit us. If not, the credit perfection we crave may be short-lived.
This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its affiliates.