What is Identity theft? Identity theft is using someone else’s personal information without their consent, usually for financial gain. If you or anyone you know had a run in with someone stealing your identity then you may already know what to do to prevent this from happening in the future. However, you may be reading this and have never encountered an identity theft experience. I want to offer a few tips to protect yourself and ways to potentially avoid anyone having the ability to use your personal information.
It’s wise to take steps to prevent malicious actors from using your personal information and ruining your financial life. Here are 10 ways to protect yourself from identity theft:
1. Freeze or lock your credit
You could freeze your credit with all three major reporting bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — this restricts access to your records so new credit files cannot be opened unless you unfreeze your account. It’s free to freeze and unfreeze your credit at each bureau, and it provides the best protection.
Locking your credit is an easier alternative, but you may have less legal protection than with a freeze.
If you don’t want to freeze your credit you could sign up for identity protection services, possible through your bank, protection service company, or other financial entity. While this option cannot prevent identity theft, they can alert you to uses of your personal information and help you recover from fraud. The three main credit bureaus offer credit monitoring services, but they often fall short on protections — especially if the credit bureau itself suffers a data breach.
2. Safeguard your Social Security number
Your Social Security number is a master key to your personal data. Guard it as best you can. When you are asked for your number, ask why it is needed and how it will be protected. Don’t carry your card with you. Securely store or shred paperwork containing your Social Security number.
3. Strengthen passwords
Random combinations of letters, numbers and special characters, different for each account, work best. Don’t rely on “security questions” to secure your accounts; your mother’s maiden name and your pet’s name aren’t hard to find. Also, some banks allow you to set up code works when calling in as an extra form of protection.
4. Limit how much information you share
Can strangers see your full name, birthdate and family members’ names on Facebook? Would you give any of that information to a caller asking the right questions? The answer should be no, unless you are verifying information with a company that you already have business with or are any other reliable source. Chances are your bank isn’t going to ask you for your social, mother’s maiden name, etc. That should bring your “spidey senses” at an all time high, lol. Don’t click on email links if you don’t recognize the sender. If you do recognize the sender, consider navigating to the website directly rather than using an email link.
5. Watch the mail
Stolen mail is one of the easiest paths to a stolen identity. Have your mail held if you’re out of town. Consider a U.S. Postal Service-approved lockable mailbox. You can also sign up for Informed Delivery through the USPS, which gives you a preview of your mail so you can tell if anything is missing. Don’t assume past-due or collections notices are in error; they may be the first sign of identity theft.
6. Make liberal use of a shredder
Any credit card or bank statements that someone could fish out of your garbage shouldn’t be there in the first place. Shred junk mail, too, especially preapproved offers of credit.
7. Use caution when shopping in stores
The Federal Trade Commission advises knowing where your wallet is at all times. Be careful with your debit or credit card (no putting it in a coat pocket “just for a second.”). Don’t tell anyone your PIN, and don’t keep it with your card. Also, when using a card reader (like at a gas station for example) make sure to wiggle it to detect if someone placed a card scanner on top of it.
8. Protect your data on your mobile device with the following:
• Use a password on your phone, set up a personal identification number on your cell phone account, and/or face identity.
• Keep software updated and use hard-to-guess passwords and two-factor identification when available. Consider using an authenticator app rather than texts to your phone to handle two-factor authentication for financial, social media and other sensitive accounts.
• Turn off Bluetooth unless you are using it.
• Be aware that when you use public Wi-Fi, others may be able to see your data.
• Be cautious about downloading free apps, which can contain malware.
9. Check your credit reports frequently
You’re entitled to a free credit report each year from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus. The option I always suggest is www.AnnualCreditReport.com. Consider requesting one report from each bureau every four months, so you can check for suspicious or incorrect information throughout the year. This option doesn’t allow you to view your score. However, you can visit Credit Karma for a free credit score. Beware of the credit companies that request payment for this information. Unless you are looking to pay a company to monitor your credit, then pulling your credit report and keeping track on your own is good enough.
10. Monitor your financial and medical statements
Read credit card and bank statements. Make sure you recognize every charge, no matter how small. Know due dates and call to investigate if you do not receive an expected bill. Review “explanation of benefits” statements to make sure you recognize the services provided, to guard against health care fraud. Store health care records securely and shred paperwork that’s no longer needed. Go directly to your insurance website rather than clicking on links in emails, and be suspicious of calls asking for personal information on the pretext of completing billing or filling a prescription.
Always Stay Alert… and a little suspicious
No matter how careful you are, you could become a victim. A restaurant employee could snap a photo of your card with a smartphone. Keep up with the news about companies having data breaches. Having your data compromised does not mean that your identity will be stolen, but it is a reason to be extra vigilant. The sooner you detect a problem, the sooner you can fix it. Regularly check your credit and accounts for signs of unauthorized use and report it immediately.