Top Ten Ways to Prevent Identity Theft

Find out how to protect yourself from identity theft.

Updated by , Attorney · University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Identity theft is an increasingly popular crime, with someone becoming a victim almost every minute. Cybercriminals hack into databases, scammers use sophisticated phishing schemes, and the methods used to steal personal information continually evolve. It's important to take steps to protect yourself. Otherwise, thieves can steal critical information about you, like your name, address, phone number, bank account, or credit card numbers, and—most dangerous—your Social Security number.

Scammers use this sensitive information to apply for additional credit cards or loans, open bank accounts, set up cell phone services, and go on shopping sprees. Some identity thieves could even go so far as to give your name to the police during an arrest.

Minimizing the disaster of identity theft depends primarily on your vigilance in guarding your privacy. Here are the top ten ways to safeguard your personal information and significantly reduce the risk of falling victim to identity theft.

1. Secure Your Personal Information

Don't provide your personal information, like your account numbers or Social Security number, over the phone, text, or internet, or through the mail unless you initiated the contact or you're sure who you're dealing with. If someone contacts you and says they're a representative from someplace like your bank, credit card company, or the IRS, it might be a phishing scam.

Be extremely wary when you're asked to provide personal information by phone or text, through the mail, or online.

Protecting Yourself From Phishing Scams

Watch for red flags in messages or requests, like misspellings in emails or texts, generic greetings that don't use your name, and urgent requests for immediate action. If the message appears real, verify the legitimacy directly with the company that it's purportedly from. Call the organization's customer service number and validate the exchange before you give any personal information. Also, ask how the information will be shared with others and request that the data be kept confidential.

Safeguarding Information in Your Home

At home, ensure that your personal information is safely secured, especially if you have roommates or employ outside help.

  • Protect your trash by tearing up or shredding sensitive materials like credit applications or credit offers, insurance forms, medical statements, credit card receipts, checks, and bank statements, as well as canceled or expired credit and ATM cards.
  • If you have people working in your home, make sure your financial papers, credit cards, and other personal information are locked away.
  • Deposit your 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.
  • Don't leave your credit, debit, or ATM card receipts behind, like in a bank or a store, and never throw them away in public.

2. Protect Your Personal Information Online

Don't post personal information, like your birth date, on social media or elsewhere online. You don't want to overshare and make it easy for thieves to get information they can then use in their phishing and other scams.

Also, never provide personal or financial information unless a website is secure. To ensure a site is secure, look for a security symbol such as an unbroken padlock and a URL starting with "https" rather than simply "http." Right-click the padlock to make sure it's up to date.

3. Limit What You Carry

Carry only the personal identification, credit cards, and debit cards that you need. Keep your little-used identification and cards in a secure place.

4. Protect Your Social Security Number

Keep your Social Security card in a secure location, and give out your Social Security number only when absolutely required. Don't carry your Social Security card with you.

5. Use Passwords and Change Them Regularly; Use Two-Factor Authentication

When you use passwords for your various online accounts, use ones that aren't easily guessed or found. Avoid using obvious passwords like "123456789," "qwerty," your mother's maiden name, the names of your children, spouse, or pets, or other personal data. Be sure to use different passwords for each of your accounts.

Also, two-factor authentication should be enabled whenever possible. This extra layer of security requires you to use a secondary form of verification, such as a code sent to your cell phone, before accessing your accounts.

6. Find Out If Your Records Were Affected After a Data Breach

If you learn that a company had a data breach that might have affected your records, find out what kind of information was taken. If it was your credit card information only, monitor those accounts closely for fraudulent charges.

If your Social Security number or other sensitive information was stolen, again, consider placing a credit freeze on your files with each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) to prevent a thief from opening up accounts in your name and ruining your credit. However, a credit freeze won't stop a thief from making charges to existing accounts.

7. Keep Your PINs Secret

Protect your personal identification numbers (PINs). Don't write them down. And don't use readily available information, such as your birth date or the last four digits of your Social Security number, as your PIN.

8. Protect Your Devices

Take the following steps to protect the personal information stored on your electronic devices, like a laptop, tablet, or cell phone:

  • Don't download files from strangers.
  • Use a firewall and secure browser.
  • Maintain current virus protection.
  • Avoid automatic log-in processes, which store your account name and password.
  • When you dispose of your device, delete personal information and completely overwrite the hard drive.

9. Be Vigilant When Traveling or in a Public Place

When you travel, leave unnecessary items, like your Social Security card, in a safe place at home. If you take a laptop, cell phone, or another device on your trip, make sure it's secure. It should be password-protected and have the latest internet security software installed. Ask if your hotel has (or can recommend someplace with) secure internet access or Wi-Fi before doing any online connecting.

When in public, avoid connecting to Wi-Fi networks that aren't secured and can easily be compromised by hackers. Use a virtual private network (VPN), which will encrypt your information, if you connect to public Wi-Fi.

10. Be Careful During Tax Time

If you get a supposed IRS email asking for personal or financial information, delete it or send it to the IRS at [email protected] for investigation. Don't be fooled by links to what looks like the real IRS website because that, too, could be a fake.

The IRS doesn't initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text messages, or social media to ask for personal or financial information like PIN numbers, passwords, or similar access information for credit cards, banks, or other financial accounts. When in doubt, contact the IRS.

If You're a Victim of Identity Theft

Visit if you think your identity has already been stolen. Also, review your credit reports regularly and respond to any inaccurate information. It's also a good idea to file your taxes early—as soon as you can—before a scammer does.

If you need help straightening out your finances, dealing with debt collection agencies, or getting credit bureaus to remove fraudulent information from your credit reports after an identity thief opens new accounts in your name, consider talking to an identity theft attorney, debt settlement attorney, or a consumer protection attorney. An attorney can also advise you of the rights and remedies available to you under federal and state law.

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