Keep Tabs on Your Financial Data to Fight Identity Theft

Quick, what's the combined balance for all of your checking, savings, and credit card accounts? Have any of them incurred large or unusual charges recently?

Can't say? Most people can't. But knowing such details and other account information will help you recover more quickly from identity theft, if you're ever unlucky enough to become a victim.

A recent Javelin Strategy and Research survey found that identity theft victims who discovered the crime on their own cleared things up on average 65 days after the scam began, compared with 104 days for those notified by their bank or a collection agency.

The lesson: Take control of your accounts. Online account services and a new account aggregator make keeping tabs quite simple.

Usually you can set up your online banking account to e-mail you alerts automatically. For example, I can choose to have Bank of America e-mail me if any cash transaction amounting to more than $100 posts to my credit card, or if a transaction originates from outside the United States. Washington Mutual can e-mail me a message about a withdrawal over a certain amount.

Such bank alerts are typically quick and easy to set up, but one new service is even better. If you give Mint.com (an Innovation Award winner) the user name and password for each of your financial accounts--including checking, savings, credit cards, and even PayPal--it will monitor them all daily and pull the transactions into its site for you to check. As a result, you can see deposits, charges, fees, and updates for all of your accounts in one place.

You can also have Mint.com send you alerts based on specified thresholds. For instance, you can arrange to receive alerts for any charges or withdrawals of more than $200, or if spending in any of the automatically totaled categories is unusually large.

The site doesn't allow you to transfer funds or do anything else with your accounts, which is a good thing in terms of security. And while it can check accounts for a wide array of financial institutions, you might be out of luck if you bank with small credit unions.

Still in beta, Mint.com had early problems handling a rush of sign-ups. The problems appear resolved now, but the service managed to lock one of my accounts because of failed log-in attempts. Though I was able to clear the lock quickly, doing so was a minor pain.

Of course, you'll need to trust the service with your account user names and passwords, too. The company says that it encrypts all of its data, carefully controls employee access, and undergoes daily security testing from ScanAlert. I've chosen to extend it my trust, but whether to follow suit is a decision to make for yourself.

Setting account alerts is a smart "hope for the best, plan for the worst" move. And even if the worst never materializes, taking such a step will still help you be more aware of your finances.

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