Crooks would love to get their hands on your Social Security number, credit card, bank account information, driver’s license, even your username and password for major websites. With this information, they can pretend to be you, and wreak all sorts of havoc in the process. They can open new accounts in your name, run up big bills, drain your funds, destroy your credit, and more. It’s impossible to prevent all instances of identity theft. On rare occasions, even well-protected data centers have security breaches. However, by taking a few basic precautions, you can lower your chances of identity theft drastically.
Guard your personal information
- Treat your personal information as your most valuable possession. Don’t give it out to anyone else without knowing who they are and what they’re going to do with it. Be especially wary with your Social Security, credit card, and bank account numbers, especially if you haven’t initiated contact with the person asking for them.
- Never just assume someone is trustworthy, even if they seem familiar. Scam artists often dupe people into sharing their information voluntarily by looking legit. They’ve impersonated companies over the phone and through the mail for decades, but they have become increasingly clever in the Internet age.
- If someone from your bank calls to “verify” your information, thank them politely for calling, and tell them you’ll call back. If you call your bank, you know whom you’re talking to, but if they call you, “they” could be anyone.
- Beware of phishing, a blanket term that involves someone trying to guile you into giving up your personal information on the Internet. They may send out mass emails or text messages in which they claim to be a bank, social networking site, or sweepstakes organization. They’ll often ask you to “re-enter” your username and password, or type in your credit card information to claim a prize. No legitimate sweepstakes, bank, or networking site will ask you for sensitive information like that via email, especially if you haven’t signed up for anything.
- Update your security software often. Make sure you’re using a legitimate site before you send transmit any personal or financial information (secured websites often start with https rather than http, though this isn’t a guarantee of legitimacy).
Protect your personal records (and your trash)
- Keep all your statements and receipts at home in a safe place until you’ve balanced your checkbook and paid your bills. Then, get rid of any documents you don’t need to keep for accounting or tax purposes.
- Be careful of what you throw out. If you’re getting rid of documents that contain personal or financial information, don’t just toss them in the recycling bin. Run them through a paper shredder or tear them up thoroughly. The same is true for your old credit, debit and ID cards. Thieves will go through trash and recycling bins to look for bank and credit card statements, pre-approved credit card applications, and other sensitive documents. Don’t give them a chance to find anything.
- Avoid leaving bills out where someone can take them. If you pay your bills by mail, drop them in a postal mailbox instead of putting them in your own mailbox.
- Make a photocopy of all the contents of your wallet, and keep them at home in a safe place. This way, if your wallet is stolen, you’ll know exactly what’s gone. If you do lose your wallet, you’ll have to take further steps to prevent identity theft.
- Never, ever carry documents like your social security card or your birth certificate in your wallet. You won’t need these for your day-to-day transactions, and they’re hard to replace if stolen. All it takes is one of those documents and your ID for someone to steal your identity. Don’t make it easy!
Monitor your accounts and protect yourself
You’re entitled to a free copy of your credit report every year, so make sure you get it. Go to the official annual credit report website or call 877-322-8228. This is the only government authorized source for free credit reports. Review your credit card and bank statements, and telephone bills for any unauthorized use. You’ll want to be on the lookout for any suspicious charges. If you suspect fraud, call the company immediately. If you discover you’ve been a victim of identity theft, report the crime to the police right away. From here, there are a number of other steps you can take to safeguard your identity. Ask nationwide consumer reporting agencies to place a “fraud alert” in your file. This lets potential creditors know you may be a victim of identity theft. Get copies of any documents relating to fraudulent transactions or false accounts in your name (you’re entitled to these by law). You can also ask consumer-reporting agencies block that information fraudulent information from your file. Remember, you’re going to need proof of identity and an identity theft report.
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