Several weeks ago I wrote about con artists who pose as home buyers to gain access to homes. The “wife” or the “husband” hangs out with the agent while the other supposedly looks around the house. What’s really happening is the other person is looking for cash and small objects to steal.

When that story was published, I heard from a Detective in Southern California. He had previously spent 25 years with the sex crimes division of the Los Angeles Police Department, and was now working in a community about 80 miles south of the city.

The Detective wanted to know who my sources were. It turned out that he was currently pursuing two sets of home buyer con artists, and had one of the “wives” in custody. One couple had hit 50 homes in 45 days, and had been caught writing checks off a checkbook that had been stolen.

It’s bad enough when cash, jewelry or even a family heirloom gets stolen. But an even bigger danger is probably sitting on a desk in your home office or spare bedroom: Your computer.

Today, most Americans have access to a computer, and a large percentage of homeowners have computers in their home. High-speed access (via DSL or cable modems) is growing quickly, as more consumers use the Internet to research, shop, and communicate. Many Americans use their home computers to manage their family’s finances. Others, like me, run a small business out of their homes and use computers to manage the information.

Computers that have personal information on them, and are left on during showings put you and your family at risk. Today’s savvy thieves know that stealing someone’s identity can get them a lot further than even fencing some stolen jewelry.

You may have $200 in cash in your drawer, but a thief can quickly charge a $2,000 computer, get a cash advance, or transfer money from your bank account to one that’s offshore and untraceable.

If you’re not careful, other pieces of information lying around can put you at risk for identity theft. Some careless homeowners will leave our credit card bills, account statements and checkbooks. If your checkbook has your social security number printed on it (a no-no these days), the thief can do some real, long-term damage.

Although your information should be safe in the privacy of your own home, when you put your home up for sale, you give up a large measure of that privacy. You invite buyers to poke through your closets and drawers. Don’t give them the opportunity to make your life miserable by stealing from you.

When selling your home, the best place to keep personal financial information, bank or retirement account statements, and other financial paperwork is either in a home safe that is securely bolted to your floor or wall, or in a locked file cabinet at the back of a closet. (Don’t keep the key anywhere near the file cabinet.)

If you use a financial accounting program like Quicken, QuickBooks, or Microsoft Money to keep your household accounts, you should make frequent back-up copies and store those in your safe as well.

You can purchase either a small safe or a locked file cabinet for a few hundred dollars from any office supply company. Shop online for the best selection and prices. Make sure your next computer includes a CD-Rewrite drive or Zip drive so that you can quickly and easily make back-up copies of your important information.

If you have a computer with personal financial information on it, you must make sure it is password protected (and don’t write your password on a yellow sticky and attach it to the monitor). Better yet, make sure your computer is turned off and perhaps covered with an attractive dust cover.

If you have a laptop, unplug it and make sure it is well hidden. Laptops are made so light and thin these days that it is easy to simply slip it under a coat and make off with it.

Typically, showings take about 20 minutes. Your job as a seller is to limit any opportunities a thief would have to take items or personal financial information in that time frame.

Clearly, having your personal financial information, or cash, or jewelry, or family heirlooms stolen isn’t what you asked for when you decided to sell your home. But thieves and con artists live among us and if you don’t want to be ripped off, you have to take some steps to protect yourself.

April 29, 2002.