Going through a filing cabinet after a natural disaster

Identity Thefts Increase After Disasters; How to Protect Yourself

It’s bad when a natural disaster damages your home, but identify theft can make it even worse. Learn how to protect yourself.

Durenda Hardy searches through a file cabinet of a friend's home that was devastated by wildfires in Oklahoma. The owners were on vacation and saw their burning home on the news, prompting a call to Hardy to try and salvage important documents. Image: Karen Nutini/FEMA

Where natural disaster strikes, scammers, including identity thieves, are sure to follow — by phone, offering “assistance,” or because your important documents are blown by high winds into their grubby hands. So, before the next hurricane, tornado, or other event, be ready for these parasites.

1. Make copies of important documents for each family member and secure them in a portable, fireproof safe or a waterproof plastic bag. If you have access to a computer and scanner, scan these documents and keep electronic records on and off your premises. What’s important? These:

  • Birth certificates
  • Driver’s licenses
  • Social Security cards and statements
  • Marriage licenses
  • Adoption paperwork
  • Death certificates
  • Wills
  • Medical histories, including current prescriptions and dosage amounts
  • Health insurance or Medicare ID cards
  • Bank, credit card, and brokerage account numbers
  • Insurance paperwork (home, health and auto)
  • Lease/mortgage paperwork
  • Past tax returns
  • Utility bills
  • Computer and ATM passwords
  • Motor vehicle VIN numbers
  • Photocopies of the content of your wallets
  • Passports

More: Protect Data from Crash and Catastrophe

2. Designate a family member to be in charge of grabbing the safe, electronic file, or bag of documents when you evacuate.

3. Shred older documents like credit card or bank account statements that are more than seven years old. The less you have floating around, the less you need to worry about. Law enforcement may prevent you from returning to your home after a hurricane or tornado, which gives looters the opportunity to sift through old paperwork.

After a natural disaster

4. If you’re staying in a shelter, keep your personal documents in your sight at all times. Even if you’re staying with friends, you still have to guard your personal information because most identity thieves steal from someone they know, says Jeff Paradise, who runs the IdentityHawk credit monitoring service.

5. Don’t give personal information to companies that call you — as opposed to you calling them. Scammers will try to trick you by posing as company officials. Don’t give out your bank account numbers, credit card information, or your Social Security number unless you’ve called the insurance company using a phone number of email address listed on the insurance company’s website or a number given to you by your agent or an insurance adjuster.

6. Don’t respond to solicitations for donations from supposed relief groups unless you initiated the contact.

7. Watch your credit for at least several months after the event — you should really check your credit a couple of times a year routinely — by either getting your free credit report from Annualcreditreport.com or signing up for a credit watch service that pulls your credit information from the three major credit bureaus each month. This is especially true if the storm washed or blew away your personal documents.

8. Ask the post office to suspend your mail delivery or forward it to your temporary home or rent a post office box.