Preventing identity theft these days can be harder than avoiding a Kardashian on television. In fact, there's really no way to guarantee that you'll never be a victim of ID theft.
You can, however, reduce your risk, and take steps to make sure you're aware as soon as you've been targeted. In 2017, there was an average of four data breaches every day according to the Identity Theft Resource Center. More than likely your personal information has already been compromised. So what can you do?
Here are 20 ways to help reduce the risk of identity theft now:
1. Don't Give out Personal Information to Just Anyone
There are a lot of scammers and identity thieves out there who will pretend to be a debt collector, bank, charity or a local business in order to convince you to give out your social security number, street address, date of birth, or any information that they can use. They will call you, email you and send you mail so be diligent in reviewing any of the above communications.
2. Avoid Clicking on Links You Are Unsure About
Fraudsters are really good about attracting your attention through emails that look like they come from businesses or people you know (and don't assume just because you know the name of the person sending the email it's actually them—check the actual email address too).
If something seems off about an email and they are asking you to click a link to an offer or action, don't click on that link. Instead, roll over the link with your mouse and you can see the destination URL that you will be sent to. This is a safer approach and can help you avoid malware, phishing scams or viruses to gather your data. If it turns out it's fake, you can let the business know so they warn others.
3. Shred Your Documents
Using a shredder can take extra time but that adds a layer of protection down the road. While many people are opting for email or text alerts for bill notifications, identity thieves still use dumpster-diving as a way to gather personal information.
4. Don't Carry Your Social Security Card
You rarely need to show the card, you just need to remember the number. One mistake of losing the card can lead to a lifetime of trouble. Keep your Social Security card in a safe place at home or in a deposit box.
5. Only Carry Credit Cards You Actually Need Daily
There's no need to carry around cards you rarely use. Minimize the risk of losing your cards by only having the ones you use on a regular basis.
6. Protect Your Mailbox
This old-school theft is still common today especially around tax return time when checks start showing up in the mail. If you can lock your mailbox do so or add a key lock if possible.
You may also want to consider having smaller packages delivered to your work address so you receive them during the day versus having them left unattended on your porch. If you are going to be gone for awhile, consider placing a hold on your mail with the US Postal Service.
7. Monitor Your Online Accounts
If you haven't set up account notifications from the financial institutions with whom you do business, then do so. Staying up-to-date on changes to your accounts is important and a quick notification sent to your smart device can make all the difference in maintaining peace of mind. There are also plenty of products out there that provide credit and identity monitoring (Experian's CreditWorks is one of them).
8. Create Strong Passwords
Avoid using the same password across multiple sites as well. You can use password managers that are available or the suggested password features from your smartphone as well.
9. Use Two-Factor Authentication
This tool adds a layer of security to your online accounts in addition to your password. Two-factor authentication requires you to provide a second piece of proof to verify your identity which can mean entering a code sent to your smartphone or computer, and many institutions require it when customers want to change account details.
10. Don't Use Public Wifi to Access Sensitive Data
We all seem to want to be connected all the time, so using free public wi-fi is very tempting. It's not always safe though, hackers and others can set up their own free wifi networks and scrape your data as a result. Make sure the network you are connected to is secure and can be trusted. If you're not sure, then don't take the chance.
11. Check Your Credit Report Regularly
To ensure all the data is accurate and that nobody has opened up accounts under your name, make sure to check each of your credit reports at least yearly. You can get your Experian, Transunion, and Equifax credit reports for free at AnnualCreditReport.com.
If possible, pull one report every four months so that you're looking at your reports throughout the year. If you notice a problem, make sure to dispute it with the lender and the bureau. At Experian, you can get an additional free copy of your Experian credit report and dispute anything inaccurate on your credit report online.
12. Cut Old Credit Cards Up
It's important to destroy any old credit cards and any other cards that have personal information about you or your family members that could be used by identity thieves. Every little detail about you can be used to build a synthetic identity, piecing together the information needed to open up a credit card account in your name.
13. Shop Online With Trusted Sites
Using secure and trusted websites to shop online can help further protect your personal and credit card information when you purchase items. For example, if you're shopping on a website, make sure that there's an "https" before the URL, instead of just an "HTTP."
14. Don't Overshare on Social Networks
That advice seems like an oxymoron these days but identity thieves will often scan social networks for personal information to piece together identities. Never post any personal information, location data, and even what items are included in a picture (like a credit card on a table) that you do share. Also, make sure social media accounts like Facebook are not viewable by people you don't know.
15. Don't Respond to Unsolicited Requests
If someone you don't know asks for personal information (your name, birthdate, social security number, or bank account number) by phone, mail, or online, just say no!
16. Consider Freezing or Locking Your Credit
A credit freeze will not affect your credit scores, but it will prevent your credit report from being accessed by lenders and used to do many things including opening new accounts, renting apartments, or applying for loans.
If you need to do any of these things, then you'll have to temporarily suspend your credit freeze. You can also request an extended fraud alert from the consumer credit bureaus (if you have filed a police report), which lasts for seven years.
17. Monitor Billing Cycles
If you start to notice your bills or financial statements are showing up late then you should contact the lender or business to find out the reason for the delay. Review your account statements and watch out for unauthorized transactions.
18. Implement Biometric Options
When possible, you can include a fingerprint, a handprint, an eye scan, and facial recognition to verify your identity rather than using a password or asking you a series of questions that you have to remember what you inputted when you set an account.
19. Keep up With the Latest in ID Theft
Pay attention to the news to know what the latest scams or breaches have taken place. Unfortunately, this has become too common, but being complacent can lead to a mistake. Staying up-to-date can mean the difference in protecting your identity from the latest threat or identifying a scammer or thief down the road.
20. Consider an Identity Theft Protection Service
Consider purchasing an identity theft protection plan or check with your existing insurance companies to see if you have any protection as part of your auto or homeowners policies). These services typically go beyond credit monitoring and help you resolve any problems once they arise. (You can learn more about Experian's identity theft protection services here.)
If you think you've been the victim of identity theft, there are a number of steps you can take to protect yourself (file a police report, contact all three credit bureaus, freezing your credit), but ultimately the path you take to resolving the problem will depend on the nature of the crime.
For example, if someone has stolen your credit card, your course of action will be different than if someone opened a new credit card in your name. And if someone got a tax refund in your name, the solution will be different still.
Here are a few articles that should be helpful:
- What Should You Do When Your Identity Is Stolen: Credit Freeze or Fraud Alert?
- Here's What Should You Do After a Data Breach
- How Do I Report Identity Theft?
- Credit Card Fraud: What to Do if You're a Victim
- How to Report Identity Theft and a Fraudulent Tax Return
Following these suggestions can help you keep up with the latest ways to prevent your identity from being stolen.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.
This article was originally published on February 5, 2018, and has been updated.