33 ways to thwart ID theft
Taking these precautions could greatly reduce your risk.
Identity theft is the fastest growing white-collar crime in the world. The Federal Trade Commission has stated that there are more than 9 million cases of identity theft per year in the United States alone. Even if you've been able to avoid any issues thus far, chances are that you know someone whose identity has been compromised.
Note from Karen: It's National Protect Your Identity Week, sponsored by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Here's some related reading that you'll find very informative.
If you take anything from this post, realize you can never be too safe with your personal information. You need to be on your toes, especially around your co-workers, friends and family. Although you likely won't be liable for any fraudulent charges and/or spending, it can takes months of consistent effort to clean up. Here are some ways you can avoid becoming a victim:
- Check credit reports several times a year. With a resource like AnnualCreditReport.com at your fingertips, there is no reason you should struggle to keep tabs on your own reports. You are allowed a report from each of the three bureaus once every 12 months. By pulling your report from one bureau at a time, you can have free access once every four months. This awareness can go a long way toward catching problems before extensive damage can be done.
- Consider freezing access to your credit reports. You are actually allowed to place a freeze on your credit reports. This effectively blocks potential thieves and creditors from pulling your report.
- Opt out. The fewer preapproved credit card offers you receive in the mail, the better. You can opt out online at www.optoutprescreen.com.
- Do-Not-Call Registry. Putting yourself on the federal Do-Not-Call list is yet another way to minimize your exposure. You can get more information at www.donotcall.gov. Your individual state may also have its own do-not-call registry.
- Cancel credit cards. There are positives and negatives to canceling unused credit cards. One of the positives is that canceling eliminates the chance of identity theft on that specific account. The more accounts you have open and unused, the more opportunities you present for ID theft.
- Credit-monitoring service. These days there are all sorts of credit-monitoring services. Each of the major credit bureaus offers its own credit monitoring, along with nearly every major credit card company. Prices commonly range from $5 to $50 per month depending on the intensity of monitoring. Personally, I'd much rather freeze and monitor my own reports.
- Identity theft insurance. An alternative to monitoring is insurance. Usually, insurance will still have some form of monitoring, but will focus much more heavily on resolution and reimbursement in the event of an actual theft. There are plenty of options available that blur the line between monitoring and insurance. If you choose to go with either, be sure to shop around and carefully compare policies, plans and coverage.
- Don't carry unnecessary information in your purse/wallet. Try to minimize the number of sensitive documents like credit cards, Social Security cards, passports, etc., you carry on a daily basis. In the event your purse or wallet is lost/stolen, this will not only limit the damage, but will make it exponentially easier to report and resolve.
- Photocopy information you do carry. Make photocopies of both sides of every piece of information you carry on a regular basis. Once again, in the event that your purse/wallet is lost or stolen, you can have quick access to phone numbers, account numbers and expiration dates that are missing.
- Simplify your financial accounts. The more you simplify your financial accounts, the easier they will be to track. Looking over your account balances each month is an essential step in catching any issues early on. In addition, the more institutions you have accounts with, the higher the risk of a security breach that compromises your information.
- Keep a spreadsheet/list of recurring bills. It is common for thieves to submit a change-of-address request on regularly scheduled bills in order to attempt to gain access to your credit lines and accounts. If you track these bills yourself, you will notice any significant gaps in your incoming mail.
- Use direct deposit. Having your checks directly deposited is much safer than handling paper checks. Not only is it quicker and more convenient, but it eliminates the possibility of a lost or stolen paycheck.
- Guard your Social Security number. Your Social Security number is your most valuable asset when it comes to identity theft prevention. Always think twice before giving out your number over the phone, online or in person. Take precautions to minimize the amount of people who come in contact with your number.
- Purchase only from trusted (secure) sites. If you have to think twice about a site, it is usually a good idea not to risk putting in your credit/debit card information. Regardless of the size or reputation, never enter your information at an unsecured site.
- Avoid e-mailing sensitive information. Never e-mail your account numbers or Social Security number. If you must send these over e-mail, it is better to create and attach a password-protected file.
- Be aware of phishing scams. Be wary of any e-mails that appear to be from legitimate companies asking you to verify or confirm your Social Security number, address, or credit card information. The majority of reputable companies will never ask you to confirm information in this manner. If you are in doubt, stop and call customer service to double-check any suspicious activity.
- Eliminate spam e-mail altogether. Make sure that you are actively using a spam filter. Not only will this cut down on the number of phishing scams, it will also drastically reduce your exposure to harmful viruses and spyware that can collect personal information.
- Do not store account information on social web sites. I must say, I was guilty at one point of maintaining my financial spreadsheets on Google Docs. I've also heard of people using Facebook or Twitter to send their account information. It doesn't get much sillier than that, folks.
- Don't access banking Web sites on unsecured/public networks. Avoid checking your account balances, paying bills, or accessing personal information while on unsecured/public wireless networks.
- Protect your computer. Make sure that you are taking full advantage of reliable firewall, virus protection, and spyware removal programs.
- Password digital financial files. Even if these remain exclusively on your own computer, it never hurts to password protect any lists or spreadsheets with your account information. Any extra deterrents you can put between your information and a potential thief are a good thing.
- Wipe hard drives before disposing of old computers. Before you sell, donate or trash your old computer, make sure that you securely wipe all files from the hard drive. It is fairly easy to recover files that are simply deleted. If you are donating or trashing, consider literally removing the hard drive.
- Take advantage of optional security questions. Many times online accounts make these questions optional. As I've stated before, any possible deterrent you can put between your information and a potential thief lowers the risk that you'll fall victim. Any question is better than none.
- Don't use the same password for every online account. I definitely struggle with this one. It is extremely tempting to me to use the same user name and password for all my online activities. At the very least, make sure to create unique passwords for each of your financial accounts. In the unfortunate case that one of your online profiles is compromised, at least they won't have access to any and all financial accounts.
- Set up banking alerts for unusual activity. The majority of banks can set up free, automated e-mail alerts that inform you of any major changes in your account activity.
- Be cautious when providing information over the phone. A good rule of thumb is to make sure that you have initiated the call. If you receive a call asking you to confirm any information, be extremely careful. In addition, make sure to be discreet with your personal information while talking on a cell phone in a public setting. You never know who might be listening.
- Be cautious when providing information face-to-face. There are several places where your Social Security number or other personal information may be discussed. Gyms, movie stores and other membership-based vendors will often require personal information. Make sure to inquire about how the business handles and disposes of your sensitive information. If you don't feel comfortable, take your business elsewhere.
- Invest in a shredder. Shred any document that has even the least bit of personal information on it. Be sure to shred any junk mail or preapproved credit offers, as well as old bills and account statements.
- Invest in a safe. Keep your most essential documents safely locked in a fireproof safe. This will help protect your information in the event of a break-in, fire or natural disaster.
- Do not carry a master list of passwords/PINs in your wallet. I've known many people who carry a list of all their account numbers, passwords and PINs in their wallet. This is like leaving the keys in the ignition and the car doors unlocked. You are just asking for trouble.
- Do not write account numbers on the outside of envelopes when you pay bills. If you need to include the account number, write it directly on the check.
- Drop bill payments by the post office yourself. That little red flag on the side of your mailbox might as well be a "hurry and steal from me" sign. Don't leave personal checks and personal information sitting in the mailbox waiting to be picked up. Take advantage of online bill pay or swing by the nearest post office or drop box to send bill payments.
- When you go on vacation, have the post office hold your mail. A stack of neglected mail is a would-be burglar's best friend. Having the post office hold your mail will not only help prevent identity theft, but might save you from a couple broken windows and a completely ransacked home.
Do you know of other ways to help thwart identity theft? Did I leave out any obvious ones? Have any of you been a victim of identity theft? Join in on the discussion by commenting below.
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