How can I protect myself from identity theft?

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Supposing you’d rather avoid the horror of having your identity stolen and your financial world thrown into upheaval, there are several steps you can take to decrease the chances of becoming a victim:

  • Keep a lid on your personal information except when it is required and you’re sure you can trust the person asking for it
  • Be skeptical of anyone who calls you and asks for personal details, no matter who he or she claims to be
  • Don’t let people steal your mail, especially if you receive “prescreened” credit card offers; when you go on vacation, contact USPS to put your mail delivery on hold or have someone collect it for you
  • If you don’t care to receive prescreened credit card offers, opt out to prevent unauthorized use (call 1-888-5-OPT-OUT)
  • Check your credit card statements, bank records, and credit report to ensure that there is no unauthorized use taking place
  • Don’t dispose of any papers listing your SSN or other private information without properly destroying (shredding) them
  • If an employer stores your sensitive personal information, ensure that there are policies in place to protect and properly dispose of your information

What about your Social Security number (SSN)?  Divulging your SSN is inevitable: employers, schools, financial institutions, utility companies, and anyone you want to perform a background or credit check all have a legitimate need for your SSN.  But sometimes the need is questionable, and in such cases you should ask the following:

  • Can this process be completed without using my SSN?
  • Why do you need my SSN and how will you use it?
  • How long will you keep my SSN on record and how will you ensure its secrecy?

Further, you should avoid carrying your SSN in your wallet or storing it in an unprotected file on your computer.  Avoid emailing your SSN to anyone, as you never know how secure it will be in someone else’s email account.

The internet has made shopping, banking, and communicating incredibly easy.  With this great convenience, however, comes great peril.  Here are some additional tips for using the internet safely:

  • Do not store credit card details on your computer
  • Do not store credit card details with retailers in case their database becomes compromised
  • Do not use public computers to enter sensitive personal information
  • Select passwords that are difficult to guess (hint: your birthday is an obvious guess)
  • Do not assume that a link always directs to the URL displayed on the page; mouse over the link without clicking to see the real link and ensure you’re not falling into a trap
  • If you are transacting with a small vendor and have any doubts about whether it can be trusted, look for one of the following logos:

If one of the logos is present, click on it and ensure that a popup window appears and confirms the website’s authenticity.  Make sure that the URL of the popup window points to the accrediting entity’s website.  These seals, unless counterfeit, indicate that the website is trusted to one degree or another.  To ensure that your information will be transmitted securely, look for a closed padlock symbol and “https://” in the address bar. 

  • You’re probably not the first to question a dubious website; as an alternative or supplement to checking a website’s logos, you can search for something like “is [website] legit” or “is [website] a scam” and you should be able to find numerous consumer reviews of the website and its trustworthiness
  • For more information, visit www.OnGuardOnline.gov

 

Although it won’t deter thieves, you can also purchase identity theft insurance in order to minimize your losses if you are targeted.  However, this will not ease the burden of dealing with the fallout of identity theft (closing accounts, fixing your credit report, etc.), and much of your losses would potentially be covered by financial institutions anyway.  The premiums for identity theft insurance probably do not justify the protection unless you believe yourself to be at particularly high risk.