Identity theft is an increasingly popular crime -- there's a new victim almost every minute. It's important to take steps to protect yourself, otherwise thieves can steal critical information about your name, address, telephone number, bank account or credit card numbers, and -- most dangerous -- Social Security number. Scammers put this sensitive information to work in many ways: applying for additional credit cards or auto loans, opening bank accounts, setting up telephone services, and going on shopping sprees. Some identity thieves could even go so far as to file bankruptcy in your name or give your name to police during an arrest.
If your identity is stolen, you could spend months or even years cleaning up the mess. You may be denied credit and refused loans, lose job opportunities, or even be suspected of crimes you didn't commit. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize the risk of falling prey to an identity thief. Here are some simple things to do:
Secure your personal records. Ensure that your personal information is safely secured, especially if you have roommates or employ outside help.
- At work, verify that your personnel records are maintained securely and that sensitive records are shredded during disposal.
- Deposit outgoing mail at the post office or in a post office collection box (not in an unsecured bin or mailbox), and collect your incoming mail promptly. Pick up new checks at the bank rather than having them mailed.
- If you have people working in your home, be sure your financial papers, credit cards, and other personal information are locked away.
- Protect your trash by tearing up or shredding sensitive materials: credit applications or credit offers, insurance forms, medical statements, charge receipts, checks and bank statements, and canceled or expired credit and ATM cards.
- Never leave behind your credit, debit, or ATM card receipts behind, such as in a bank or ticket-vending machine -- and never throw them away in public.
Watch your wallet. Keep your wallet (and your purse) in a safe place at work. When you are out in public, carry your wallet on your person at all times. In a restaurant, do not hang your purse on the back of your chair; this is easy-pickings for an identity thief.
Limit your load. Carry only the personal identification, credit cards, and debit cards that you need. Store little-used identification and cards in a secure location.
Protect your family's Social Security numbers (SSNs). Keep your Social Security card in a secure location, and give SSNs out only when absolutely required. If your state uses Social Security numbers as your driver's license number, request that it substitute another number. If your child has a Social Security number, periodically check with the three nationwide credit reporting agencies to be sure an identity thief has not accessed and used that number to get credit.
Use passwords -- and change them regularly. Place passwords on your credit cards, bank, and telephone accounts. Use passwords that are not easily guessed or found. Avoid using obvious codes like your mother's maiden name, the last four digits of your SSN, the names of your children, spouse, or pets, or other personal data as your password.
If you receive notice or news of a data breach, contact the company to find out if your records were affected. If you get notice from a company that it had a data breach that may have affected your records, contact the company directly using contact information in your existing records to confirm that the letter was for real. Find out what kind of information was taken. If it was your credit account information only, monitor those accounts closely for fraudulent charges. If your Social Security number was stolen, put a fraud alert on your credit file.
Guard against tele-theft. Any time you are asked to provide personal information by telephone, through the mail, or over the Internet, be wary. Even when you have initiated the contact, confirm that the other party is legitimate. Call the organization's customer service number and validate the exchange before you provide any personal information. Also, ask how the information will be shared with others; request that the information be kept confidential.
Protect your PC. Take several steps to protect your identity as stored on your PC:
- Use a firewall and secure browser.
- Don't download files from strangers.
- Maintain current virus protection.
- Password-protect any personal or financial information.
- Avoid automatic log-in processes (which store your account name and password).
- When you dispose of your computer, delete personal information and completely overwrite the hard drive.
Despite your best efforts, you may still lose your wallet or experience credit card charges that are not your own. If you have lost important personal identification or credit cards, or if you suspect that your personal information has been used to commit fraud or theft, read Nolo's article Stolen Identity? Here's What to Do, or get Stopping Identity Theft: 10 Easy Steps to Security, by Scott Mitic (Nolo).