Identity theft is a crime in which someone obtains key pieces of your personal information, such as a Social Security number or driver’s license number, in order to impersonate someone else. This information can be used to obtain credit, merchandise, and services in the name of the victim, or to provide the thief with false credentials for employment or travel. In addition to running up debt, an imposter might provide false identification to police, creating a criminal record or leaving outstanding arrest warrants for the person whose identity has been stolen. Imagine having a criminal record and not knowing about it until police officers show up at your door with an arrest warrant?
Identity theft is a crime that is estimated to affect over 9 million Americans per year. Therefore it would be wise for individuals to take steps to protect themselves from falling victim to this very large, and growing, segment of crime.
Protect yourself from identity theft with these basic tips…
- Consider Subscribing to A Credit Monitoring Service. Several companies offer services to help you in the case that you become victim to identity theft, including the big three Experian, Equifax, and Transunion. These services almost always includes regular fees of some type however they do provide real time alerts to changes on your credit report and new credit inquiries. The quicker you are alerted to a potential case of identity theft, the easier the case will be to resolve with your financial institution. I highly recommend a credit monitoring service for those with a 720 credit score or higher.
- Keep Personal Documents in a Safe. Consider keeping a fireproof personal safe for your home. You can use your safe to protect valuable documents such as your social security card, birth certificate and passport. In addition, I recommend an off-site safety deposit box to store copies of documents and items that are difficult to replace in the event of an extreme disaster such as fire or flood.
- Protect your Purse or Wallet. At ALL times! The best purses and backpacks are those that can be zipped or closed shut. Try not to use bags that others can easily see or reach into such as tote bags. And keep bags close to your body at all times. Do not leave wallets or purses in the car, or if you must, do not leave them exposed or in an obvious place. In addition, be sure to protect your baggage when traveling in airports and through public transportation.
- Photocopy the Contents of your Wallet. Make copies of credit cards, ID cards, and all other personal documents you keep in your wallet. Also, keep records of phone numbers to contact in case you need to close accounts or order replacement items in the event of an emergency. For digital storage, use an app like FastScanner to maintain a mobile record on your smartphone or tablet.
- Examine your Bank Account Statements Monthly. Ensure that your accounts have no unauthorized charges. If there are charges that you do not recognize, contact your banking institution immediately. Banks are typically quick to act on fraudulent charges and in most cases they will refund your money immediately.
- Remove yourself from Promotional Lists. Junk mail and pre-approved credit card lists only add clutter and do not do you any good. They also have the potential to put you at risk of ID theft if a stranger gets their hands on your pre-approved cards.
- Manage your Credit Cards. There’s no reason to have 10 or more open credit cards for the taking. Consolidate and reduce the number of cards you have if possible. The less credit you have open, the less you’ll have to monitor. However, be careful with this strategy. If you have lines of credit that are in good standing and have been open an extended period of time, they are most likely working in your favor with your credit score. Only cancel credit cards with a short payment history or extremely high finance charges.
- Select Smart Passwords. Make your password as difficult to figure out as possible. An impersonal combination of letters, special characters, and numbers is best. Try to steer away from using things like birthday, social security number, or generic passwords such as welcome.
- Protect your computer. Use anti-spyware software such as Ad Aware and anti-virus software like McAfee and be sure to keep them up to date. Schedule regular scans of both applications and be sure to quarantine any infected files immediately. This will help to reduce your potential exposure to online ID theft.
- Do not Reveal Personal Information. Never reveal personal information to unverified sources whether over the phone or on the Internet. Do not feel pressured to answer personal questions if you do not trust the source. Feel free to request verifying information before giving anything up.
- Review your Credit. Take advantage of your free annual credit reports and consider purchasing additional copies throughout the year for continuous monitoring. Consider placing fraud alerts and credit freezes on your account for greater protection.
- Shred Personal Documents. Before throwing them away, be sure to shred any documents that may have confidential information on them. Dumpster diving is a common method of stealing personal information for the sake of identity fraud. Purchase a shredder for your home and destroy paperwork containing personal information before discarding. This includes mail, credit card statements and even receipts.
Taking as many precautions as necessary will help protect you from financial setbacks – and a few surprises – down the road.