Top Ten Ways to Prevent Identity Theft

Find out how to protect yourself from identity thieves.

Identity theft is an increasingly popular crime, with someone becoming a victim almost every minute. It's important to take steps to protect yourself; otherwise, thieves can steal critical information about you, like your name, address, telephone number, bank account, or credit card numbers, and—most dangerous—your Social Security number. Scammers put this sensitive information to work in many ways: applying for additional credit cards or loans, opening bank accounts, setting up telephone services, and going on shopping sprees. Some identity thieves could even go so far as to give your name to 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 prevent identity theft.

1. Secure Your Personal Records

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, charge receipts, checks and bank statements, and 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.
  • At work, verify that your personnel records are maintained securely and that sensitive records are shredded during disposal.
  • 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. Safeguard Your Personal Information Online

Don't put personal information, like your birth date, on a computer home page, personal computer profile, or social media website. Never provide personal or financial information unless a website site is secure. (Look for a security symbol such as an unbroken padlock and a Web browser that starts 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

When you use passwords for your various online accounts, use ones that are not 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.

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

If you learn that a company had a data breach that may 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 was stolen, 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. (Though a credit freeze won't stop a thief from making charges to existing accounts.) If you decide against a freeze, consider placing a fraud alert on your credit files. (Read about the difference between a security freeze and a fraud alert.)

7. Guard Against Tele-Theft

Don't give personal information over the phone unless absolutely necessary, and don't ever give it out unless you initiated the phone call. If someone contacts you and says they are calling from someplace like your bank, credit card company, or the IRS, ask for a number to call them back—and then make sure it's really an official number.

Any time you’re asked to provide personal information by telephone, through the mail, or over the Internet, be wary. Even if you’ve initiated the contact, confirm that the other party is legitimate. 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 information be kept confidential.

8. Protect Your Computer

Take the following steps to protect your identity as stored on your computer:

  • 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.

9. Be Vigilant When Travelling

When you travel, leave your checkbook, Social Security card, and other unnecessary items in a safe place at home. If you take a laptop, smartphone, or other device on your trip, make sure it's secure. It should be password-protected and have the latest Internet security software installed. Ask your hotel to recommend reputable Internet cafes or WiFi spots before you do any online connecting. Also erase your online history after using a public computer

10. Be Vigilant 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 phishing@irs.gov for investigation. Don't be fooled by links to what looks like the real IRS website—that too could be a fraud. 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

If you think your identity has already been stolen, see Stolen Identity? Here’s What to Do and visit Identitytheft.gov. Also, keep an eye on your credit report 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 report 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 all of the rights and the remedies available to you under federal and state law.

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