There are a number of ways that people find themselves the unsuspecting victims of identity theft. Sometimes it’s through lost personal data—such as the loss or theft of a purse or wallet—or through more intentional methods, such as computer hacking of corporate billing department records.
While identity thieves are growing more and more sophisticated in their attempts at garnering consumers’ identities, there are a number of ways to minimize your risk when it comes to making it easy for them.
Protect your personal information. It’s surprising how many people willingly hand over their Social Security numbers to organizations who don’t have any business with it. There are often blanks on forms to be filled out that ask for the number, and too often, individuals fill out the form without giving it a second thought.
Your Social Security number, health insurance policy number, and several other pieces of key data are unique to you, but can be used maliciously in the wrong hands. Remember that your SSN is not to be used as an identification number, and that companies who request it without planning to use it for its intended purpose (ie, income tax issues or credit reporting) are not entitled to it. This includes doctors’ offices, schools, day care centers, and more.
Don’t toss it in the mail. One of the often overlooked ways that people forget to protect their personal information is by sending outgoing mail from their curbside mailboxes. If you’re mailing anything that contains sensitive personal information like checks, health insurance statements, or tax documents, those are better off sent from a US post office.
Don’t make it too easy to steal from you. Help ensure that you’re not making it easy for criminals to access your financial accounts. Use a shredder to discard old bank statements or credit card statements, or opt for paperless billing to avoid having piles of personal information going out with your trash.
While you’re protecting your financial statements each month, make sure to really look at them closely. Look for charges that you don’t remember making, and check the statement to make sure there aren’t duplicates of your credit card being used. It’s always a good idea to request your free annual credit report from reputable companies like AnnualCreditReport.com to stay on top of any suspicious activity.
Remember that there are a variety of reasons why a company might take a peek at your credit report, including approving you for a credit card or loan, or in some cases, even if you’ve applied for a job in certain fields. Your credit report will show you who’s looking at your finances, and it’s even possible to freeze your credit report with the three national credit reporting agencies in order to prevent others from accessing it.
A password is only as good as you make it. With the move to online banking, online shopping, and paperless billing, remember to keep all of your accounts secure with a strong password. You’ll want one that has at least eight letters, and also contains a number and a symbol to thwart hackers. It’s a good rule of thumb to change your passwords periodically, too, and never check boxes on your financial websites that allow you to store the password.
Unfortunately, keeping up with a host of different passwords can be a job all by itself. Don’t give in to the temptation to use the same password on multiple sites, no matter how easy and safe it seems. Also beware of “password apps” that help you store your passwords in your smartphone or mobile device; if the device is lost or your service provider is hacked, you’ve just handed thieves a road map to all of your data and accounts.
Just because they ask, doesn’t mean you have to tell them. Finally, don’t forget to protect yourself from the oldest trick in the book: the direct question. If someone sends you an unsolicited email, or calls you and asks you to verify your Social Security number or other personal information, do not share it. Even if it’s a company that you recognize and actually do business with, the person on the other end of the phone should already have your data and should respect the steps you’re taking to protect your identity. Again, your SSN is not an identification number and shouldn’t be used to verify your account identity, especially by a knowledgeable customer service professional. Anyone who presses you for information is probably not someone you should give it to.