Identity theft occurs when someone steals your personal information and uses it to commit fraud or other crimes. According to the [Federal Trade Commission](https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0014-identity-theft), identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the U.S., affecting millions of Americans yearly. Identity thieves can drain your bank account, run up credit card charges, open new utility accounts, or get medical treatment using your name. These crimes can damage your credit, cost you time and money to restore your good name, and compromise your personal and financial security.
The good news is there are ways to protect yourself from identity theft. While you can’t completely control whether you will become a victim, there are steps you can take to minimize your risk. This article outlines key strategies to help safeguard your identity and sensitive information from theft and misuse:
– Monitor your accounts and credit reports regularly
– Secure your Social Security number
– Use strong passwords and change them frequently
– Beware of phishing scams by email, phone, or text
– Secure your electronic devices
– Safely dispose of sensitive documents
– Limit use of public computers
– Be cautious when using public WiFi
– Know what to do if you become an identity theft victim
By being proactive about your identity security, you can reduce the chances that thieves will gain access to your personal information and commit fraud in your name. With vigilance and common sense precautions, you can help protect your identity.
Monitor Your Accounts and Credit Reports
One key step to prevent identity theft is monitoring your financial accounts and credit reports for any suspicious activity. Here are some tips:
– Watch for signs of identity theft in your bank and credit card statements. Look for purchases you didn’t make, withdrawals you didn’t authorize, or account balances that seem off.
– Review your statements thoroughly as soon as you receive them. The sooner you spot unauthorized activity, the quicker you can report it.
– Check your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, TransUnion) at least once a year. Look for accounts you didn’t open, debts that aren’t yours, or other errors that could indicate fraud. You can get free annual credit reports at annualcreditreport.com.
– Consider signing up for credit monitoring services that actively watch for fraud and alert you about suspicious activity. Many banks and credit cards now offer this as a perk. Or you can use third-party services like LifeLock or Credit Karma, often for a monthly fee.
– Set up account alerts with your financial institutions to be notified about certain types of transactions, such as online purchases or withdrawals above a threshold. Alerts can help you stay on top of your accounts in real time.
Carefully monitoring statements and credit reports allows you to nip identity theft in the bud before significant financial damage is done. It’s one of the most important preventative measures you can take.
Secure Your Social Security Number
Your social security number is the key to your identity, so keeping it secure is critical for preventing identity theft. Here are some tips for protecting your SSN:
Don’t carry your social security card in your wallet:
Only take it out when absolutely necessary, like when starting a new job. Otherwise, keep it in a safe place at home. Carrying your SSN card increases the risk of losing it.
Limit sharing of your SSN:
Avoid giving out your SSN unless it’s absolutely necessary. Don’t have your SSN printed on checks or ID cards. Be cautious when asked for your SSN over the phone, through email, or online. Verify the entity requesting it is legitimate.
Request confidential communications:
Ask your healthcare providers, insurance companies, and financial institutions to refrain from using your SSN on insurance cards or other mailings. This prevents thieves from obtaining it through stolen mail. Opt for patient portals and online communications when possible.
Check your annual Social Security statement:
Review it to detect any suspicious earnings activity associated with your SSN, which could indicate identity theft. You can also check your earnings record by creating an online account on the Social Security Administration’s website.
Report any fraudulent use of your SSN:
If you suspect your SSN has been compromised, contact the Social Security Administration right away and file an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission. This can help limit the damage.
Keeping your SSN as private as possible reduces the chances of it falling into the wrong hands. Limit sharing it and keep an eye out for any suspicious use. With vigilance, you can effectively secure your SSN.
Use Strong Passwords
Your passwords are your first line of defense against identity thieves. Weak, reused, or compromised passwords can allow hackers easy access to your online accounts. Follow these tips to create strong, unique passwords for all your important accounts:
– Make passwords long – at least 12 characters. Use a passphrase or sentence that is easy to remember but hard to guess.
– Avoid common words, names, dates, patterns like “123”, or personal info. Use random combinations of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols.
– Never reuse the same password twice. Use a unique password for every account.
– Consider using a password manager tool like 1Password or LastPass to generate and store strong, random passwords securely.
– Enable multi-factor authentication (MFA) when available. MFA requires an additional step like a text code or biometric scan to log in, even if your password is compromised.
– Change passwords regularly, at least every 90 days. Immediately change any password you suspect may be compromised.
– Avoid saving passwords in your browser. Use a password manager instead.
Strong unique passwords and multi-factor authentication will make it much harder for identity thieves to access your accounts and information. Invest time upfront in good password habits for long-term protection.
Beware of Phishing Scams
Phishing scams are one of the most prevalent ways cybercriminals steal personal information. Phishing involves emails, texts, calls or other communications that appear to come from a legitimate company or institution, but are actually from scammers trying to trick you into providing sensitive information.
How Phishing Works
Phishing scams often start with an email, text or phone call that seems official, but contains telltale signs that it’s fake if you look closely. The message will create a false sense of urgency and ask you to act right away by clicking a link, downloading an attachment, or calling a phone number. If you comply, you may be directed to a fake website that looks real, but is designed to harvest your login credentials, financial account details, SSN and more.
Red Flags of Phishing Emails/Calls
Here are some common red flags of a phishing attempt:
– Generic greeting like “Dear user” instead of your name
– Spoofed sender name/number to mimic a company you know
– Strange email address or provider for the company
– Misspellings and grammatical errors
– Requests sensitive info like SSN, login credentials or bank account numbers
– Threats of account suspension if you don’t respond
– Links and attachments from an unfamiliar sender
Safely Handling Sensitive Info
To avoid falling victim to phishing:
– Never send sensitive information in an email, text or over the phone without verifying the request through an established channel
– Do not click links or open attachments from an unverified source
– Manually navigate to a company’s website (don’t click emailed links) to login or submit info
– Check for mismatched URLs that may be imitating a real site
– Use antivirus/antiphishing software to detect and block malicious links
– If you suspect a scam, report the message to [service]
Following these tips can prevent your sensitive information from falling into the hands of phishing scammers seeking to steal identities and commit fraud.
Secure Your Devices
Your laptop, smartphone, tablet and other devices contain a treasure trove of personal information that identity thieves would love to access. Follow these tips to lock down your devices:
Install updates regularly:
Keep your device operating systems and apps updated with the latest security patches. Turn on automatic updates if possible. Hackers exploit known vulnerabilities that are fixed in updates.
Use antivirus software:
Install antivirus software on your computer to detect and remove malware. Some antivirus programs provide additional identity theft monitoring services.
Exercise WiFi precautions:
Only connect to trusted WiFi networks that are password protected. Avoid doing sensitive activities like online banking on public WiFi. Use a VPN to encrypt your connection when on public networks.
Encrypt your devices:
Turn on full-disk encryption for your laptop and mobile devices. Encryption scrambles data so it cannot be read if your device is lost or stolen.
Enable remote wipe:
Mobile device management solutions allow you to remotely wipe a lost smartphone or tablet. This removes your sensitive information if the device falls into the wrong hands.
Limit app permissions:
Be selective in granting app permissions to access contacts, location, camera and other sensitive device information. Disable permissions that don’t seem necessary.
Log out of accounts:
Don’t stay permanently signed into accounts on your devices. Log out when you are done using an app or service.
Properly securing your laptops, phones, tablets and any internet-connected devices will reduce the risk of identity thieves infiltrating your digital life. Take advantage of all available security features.
Safely Dispose of Sensitive Documents
The paper trail you leave with bank and tax statements, medical forms, credit card offers and more can leave you vulnerable to ID theft. Before throwing these documents away, make sure you remove any personally identifying information:
– Invest in a quality shredder. Shred any documents containing personal information like your social security number, birthdate, account numbers, etc. before disposal. Ideally you want a cross-cut shredder that turns paper into tiny confetti-like pieces.
– For old computers, external hard drives and other devices, completely wipe the hard drives before disposal to remove all data. There are disk wiping programs that will overwrite the existing data to make it unreadable. Or you can physically destroy the hard drive if you want to be extra cautious.
– Don’t just throw sensitive items in the trash or recycling bin! Dumpster diving is a prime way thieves uncover your private information. Make sure documents are properly shredded first.
– Be mindful of mail – either invest in a locking mailbox or avoid mailing bills from your home mailbox. Mail theft provides easy access to your info.
Taking the time to properly dispose of sensitive paperwork, devices and mailings can prevent dumpster divers from stealing critical details that lead to identity theft down the road.
Limit Use of Public Computers
Public computers, like those found in libraries or internet cafes, can pose risks for identity theft. When using a public computer, avoid activities like online banking or entering any sensitive personal information. Public computers may have spyware or keylogging software installed that can steal usernames, passwords, and other private data.
It’s also important to clear your browsing history and log out of any sites after using a public computer. Don’t let the computer save passwords or leave your email, social media, or other accounts logged in. Delete all temporary internet files and clear the browser history to remove traces of your activity. If available, use the computer’s privacy or in-private modes when browsing. Limiting use of public computers and removing your digital footprint can help secure your identity and sensitive information from prying eyes.
Be Wary of Public WiFi
Using public WiFi can make you an easy target for identity thieves who can intercept your Internet traffic and steal your personal information. Here are some tips to stay safe when using public WiFi:
Use a VPN:
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) encrypts your Internet connection, even on public WiFi. VPN services like NordVPN or ExpressVPN only cost a few dollars a month and are crucial for protecting your privacy. Whenever you connect to public WiFi, be sure to turn your VPN on first.
Don’t access sensitive accounts:
Never access your bank, credit card, or other sensitive accounts on public WiFi. Even with a VPN, it’s safest to avoid logging into important accounts until you’re on a trusted connection.
Turn off sharing settings:
Disable file sharing and printer sharing options on your devices when on public networks. This prevents others from being able to access your files and devices.
Use HTTPS sites:
When available, try to only visit sites secured with HTTPS, as this encrypts data in transit between your browser and the site. Look for the lock icon in the URL bar.
Keep firewalls and security software active:
Make sure your computer and phone have their firewalls enabled and security software active before connecting to public WiFi. This provides some extra protection.
Don’t stay permanently connected:
When you’re done using public WiFi, disconnect your device and turn off the auto-connect feature. This prevents your device from automatically connecting in the future without your knowledge.
By taking a few simple precautions, you can enjoy the convenience of public WiFi while reducing your risks of identity theft. A VPN and some good habits can go a long way in protecting your digital life.
What to Do If You’re a Victim
Unfortunately, identity theft can happen even when taking precautions. If you suspect you’re a victim, act quickly to minimize the damage. Here are some steps to take:
Contact banks and creditors immediately:
Alert them to any fraudulent charges or accounts opened in your name. Cancel compromised cards and request new ones. The sooner you report fraud, the less liability you may have.
Place a fraud alert:
Contact one of the three major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, TransUnion) to place an initial 90-day fraud alert on your credit report. This alerts lenders to take extra steps to verify your identity before issuing credit.
File a police report:
Get a copy of the report to submit to creditors as proof of the identity theft crime. The police may also be able to provide information on the thief’s activity.
Report identity theft to the FTC:
File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at IdentityTheft.gov. This helpful website guides you through each recovery step.
Check your credit reports:
Request free copies of your reports from each bureau to identify any additional fraudulent accounts or charges. Dispute any inaccuracies with the bureaus.
Consider a credit freeze:
Stop thieves from opening any new accounts in your name by freezing access to your credit reports unless you lift the freeze. Fees may apply for this service.
Create an FTC Identity Theft Affidavit:
Submit this form to any companies where your identity was misused. The affidavit legally obligates companies to remove fraudulent accounts/debts.
Unfortunately, identity theft can take time to fully resolve. Continue to monitor your accounts and credit reports closely.
Identity theft is a frustrating invasion of privacy. By acting quickly and assertively, you can contain the damage and reclaim your financial identity. Don’t hesitate to enlist help from appropriate agencies and advocacy groups during the recovery process.