5 Ways to Prevent Your Identity from Being Stolen

Identity theft is a growing problem, as technology becomes a bigger part of our lives. This is a major crime that can complicate your life in ways you could never have imagined, like wrecking your finances, ruining your credit history and damaging your reputation.

In this digital age, thieves don’t have to dumpster dive, swipe your wallet or steal your mail to get the personal information they need to access your bank account and credit cards.

While there’s no way to be 100% safe from identity theft, there are some simple things you can do to make it more difficult for thieves to steal your identity.

5. Be aware of the types of identity theft.

When you hear the words “identity theft,” you probably think of some perp going on a shopping spree with your credit cards, but there are other forms that can be just as dangerous.

One is tax-related identity theft. A thief can use your Social Security number to apply for a job or steal your tax refund. This is one good reason to keep your SSN as private as possible and reveal it only when necessary. The IRS will not attempt to contact you by email or text, so do not answer any such messages by giving the sender personal information. If you suspect you’ve been made a victim of tax identity theft, contact the IRS and report the fraud so their specialists can get to the bottom of the problem.

Another is medical identity theft, which involves using your name or medical insurance information to obtain medical care or prescription drugs. To avoid this, read your medical and insurance statements thoroughly as soon as you get them. If you find anything suspicious, contact your provider immediately. Other red flags include being called by a debt collector over a bill you don’t owe.

You’d think that children would be immune from identity theft, but sadly, that’s not true. A thief can use your child’s Social Security number to create a new identity that can be used to open credit card and bank accounts as well as apply for government services or rent a house.

Even if you’re very careful about guarding the identities of your children, their schools may not be as scrupulous. Your child’s personal information is protected by law, but some schools aren’t as careful about security as they could be. Find out how the personal information of students is collected, used, stored and disposed of. Investigate immediately if your child is turned down for government benefits due to someone else using his number, or if s/he is getting notices from the IRS.

The best way to avoid all of these is to not hand out your Social Security number, or that of anyone in your family, to just anyone.

4. Secure your personal information offline.

Keep your financial documents locked up in a safe place. This is especially important if you have roommates or family members who could provide access to your information.

When at work, keep your wallet or purse in a safe place. Workplace crime is a major problem, and while you may trust your co-workers, you can’t say the same for every vendor or delivery person who enters your office. Stash your purse in a locked desk drawer, and do the same for your wallet if you’re not keeping it on your person. Don’t think your purse or briefcase will be safe in your car, since underground garages are popular targets for thieves.

Shred documents you no longer need if they contain financial information. Yes, it’s a nuisance and takes time, but old credit card bills and bank statements can give an identity thief everything he needs to mess up your financial life.

Carry only the ID, debit and credit cards you need when you go out. The fewer items you have on your person, the easier it will be to report them stolen if you get robbed. Don’t carry your Social Security card.

Keep a close eye on your mail. If your mailbox can’t be locked, take outgoing mail to an official post office collection box or the post office—especially bill payments. Consider paying your bills online. Having bills sent to your email box makes for less mail that can be stolen and used to steal your identity. Doing the same for bank statements means those won’t be lying around in the box. Don’t let mail pile up in your box and arrange for a vacation hold if you’re going to be gone more than a couple of days. Mail that’s been sitting around is a magnet for thieves, both the ID type and the ones who are looking to break into your house and steal your stuff.

3. Secure your personal information online.

Handling your finances online means less paper sitting around for an identity thief to paw through, it does open you up to another group of crooks—the kind who hack into your accounts. The best way to avoid this kind of theft is to be very careful with whom you share your information.

Use encryption software to safeguard your online transactions. This software scrambles your information, keeping it safe from potential thieves. Look for the “lock” on your browser’s status bar to be sure your information is encrypted. Also, install anti-virus software, anti-spyware and a firewall on your computer.

Don’t give out any personal information unless you’re absolutely sure with whom you’re dealing. One favorite scam of ID thieves is “phishing.” “Phishing” scams often pretend to be from a bank or other financial institution and claim your account will be closed unless you click on a link and enter information like your Social Security number, account number and ATM number.

While most of the potential targets of “phishing” aren’t gullible enough to fall for these scams, some are. The red flag should be asking for personal information like your ATM number or Social Security number, since no legit financial institution will ask for personal info by email. Also, the sites for banks use encryption software that can be spotted by the “lock” on your browser’s status bar. If you find one of these scams in your box, forward it to your bank. To sum it up—don’t be stupid.

Keep all passwords private and change them often. Pick passwords that are unique and can’t be easily guessed by a stranger.

Before disposing of a computer or mobile device, remove all personal information.  A wipe utility program can be used to overwrite the hard drive of a computer.  When you get a new cellphone, remove the SIM card from the old one and delete all personal information include phone numbers and call history.

Do not reveal personal information on social networking sites. While Facebook can seem like one big happy family, do keep in mind that what you post isn’t totally private. Do not share your address, or phone number and don’t let other family members do so. Don’t reveal when you’re going to be out of town.

2. Watch out for early signs of identity theft.

If you can catch a problem soon enough, you may be able to avoid any further damage. Given your personal information and enough time, a skilled identity thief can suck cash from your bank account, open new credit cards in your name and even use your medical insurance to get treatment. If you don’t want to be paying for some stranger’s new iPad or boob job, watch for these warnings. Now is the time to be proactive and go on the offensive.

Red flags include unexplained withdrawals from your bank account or charges on your credit cards. If you see anything that doesn’t look kosher, call your bank or credit card company immediately and ask for an explanation. You may just find a transaction you had forgotten to record, but you could also uncover something more ominous. Alert the financial institution to put a fraud alert on your account. Credit cards that have been used fraudulently should be cancelled and reissued with new numbers.

Another warning sign is the failure to receive bank statements or credit card bills, which can indicate that someone is stealing your mail. Worse, an identity thief could have changed the address on your accounts, so you won’t see the damage that’s been done to your credit rating. Again, contact your financial institution at the first sign of trouble.

If you start receiving unfamiliar bills from medical providers, this could indicate unauthorized use of your health insurance. Another warning sign is having your health claim denied because your carrier says you’ve already maxed out your coverage—when you haven’t. This is serious stuff, and needs to be straightened out before anyone in your family has a medical emergency.

Another problem that must be should be investigated immediately is a notice from the IRS that they received more than one return filed in your name or that you have income from an employer you never heard of. Dealing with the IRS is a pain even when you aren’t dealing with identity thieves, so any problems need to be dealt with ASAP.

If you lose your wallet with IDs, credit cards or other personal information, contact your bank and credit card companies immediately.

Consider an identity theft protection service. If you have a large number of credit cards, have business associates or family members who use your cards, or just want to keep extra close tabs on your security, you may want to pay for an identity theft protection service. These services can keep tabs on your credit reports, financial accounts and other personal information.  At the first sign of trouble, these services can place fraud alerts or freezes on your credit reports. Think of this as insurance—not worth it until you need it.

1. Take quick action if your identity is stolen.

If the worst happens and you’re the victim of identity theft, there are still things you can do to minimize the damage. First, contact the credit reporting companies and have a fraud alert placed on your account. This will prevent the thief from opening new accounts using your name. This alert expires after 90 days, so keep up with your status and have it renewed. Request a free credit report and stay in contact with the reporting companies.

Repairing the damage to your credit is a long, ongoing process that needs to be documented at every step. Monitor your process by starting a log where you will record all telephone calls made in an effort to stop the identity theft. Record names, numbers and what was discussed. Keep copies of all letters you send, use certified mail and ask for a return receipt.

File an Identity Theft Report. To do this, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and use this to file a police report. Having an Identity Theft Report will help you when you need to deal with credit card companies, businesses and debut collectors, because this document proves to them that you’re you and not the thief.

One of the things that this report can help you do is get all fraudulent information deleted from your credit report. It will also stop companies from harassing you over debts resulting from the identity theft. Most importantly, it will help you get the information you need from businesses that allowed the thief to open new accounts or use your old ones.

Ask these businesses for any documents used by the thieves to open or make changes in accounts and details of fraudulent transactions. Include a copy of your Identity Theft Report. The businesses must send you free copies of the pertinent records within 30 days.

More information on identity theft and sample letters on dealing with repairing your credit are available at www.consumer.ftc.gov.

Written on 5/26/2013 by Linda F. Cauthen.

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