How to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft
Identity theft is on the rise, with 2016 being described as a “banner year for fraudsters, as numerous measures of identity fraud reached new heights,” according to Javelin Strategy & Research.
This means about one in every 16 U.S. adults were victims of identity theft last year — or an estimated 15.4 million consumers. Criminals moved toward card-not-present fraud (mainly online purchases), where chips weren’t needed.
The crime of identity theft occurs when a thief steals your personal information to commit fraud. With your name and social security number, a thief can file taxes, receive medical benefits and apply for credit cards and personal lines of credit.
To prevent yourself from becoming the next victim, here are seven ways to protect yourself:
- Watch Your Mail – Stealing from a mailbox is one of the easiest ways for someone to assume your identity and commit fraud, especially during tax season. If you go out of town, be sure to put your mail on hold with the U.S. Postal Service. Stealing mail is a felony offense in the United States. A person convicted of mail theft faces a fine of up to $250,000 and up to five years in federal prison.
- Don’t Just Throw Away Your Mail – Thieves will dig through your trash looking for bank statements, credit card applications, and bills. Even junk mail displays personal information. If this means buying a shredder or using a shredding service, do it. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
- Protect Your Social Security Number – Freely giving out your Social Security number, whether on the phone or when filling out unprotected applications, is not advised. Ask if there’s another way to validate your identity instead of using your SSN. Definitely don’t keep your Social Security card in your wallet. This makes your SSN a ripe target for thieves, and that much more important for you to protect. If a thief gets ahold of your SSN, it’s easy to do everything from opening a new credit card in your name, to using your identity to pay for utilities, and take out new loans – all without your knowledge.
- Don’t Use the Same Password – While it’s inconvenient to memorize a bunch of different passwords, it behooves you to use different ones as a best practice. A study by online security firm Trusteer found that 73 percent of people use the same password for online banking, email or other logins. Even riskier, 47 percent use the same password and same username, too! It’s not too tough these days for a thief to get your email login. If you use the same login for finances, they can steal your money from your bank account. Create different passwords for every account and change them frequently.
- Monitor Bank and Credit Accounts – You are allowed to get one free credit report a year from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Monitoring your report can help you spot signs of identity theft. You’d be surprised how common it is for errors and/or suspicious activity to appear on your credit report. This can affect your credit score and lead to higher interest rates. It’s wise to request a report every four months to review it for inaccurate or suspicious activity. If you find something weird, report it to your bank immediately. Something else to consider is placing a credit freeze on your accounts because it restricts access to your credit report, which makes it more difficult for identity thieves to open new accounts using your name. A credit freeze does not affect your ability to get your annual free credit report or your credit score.
- Update Anti-Virus and Anti-Malware Software – If you have anti-virus and anti-malware to protect your computer from harm, when was the last time you updated it? Your computer could be at risk of acquiring new viruses that your software may be susceptible to, and you are leaving yourself open for attack. Some viruses and spyware can hack into your system, and erase or corrupt data. Everyone has valuable personal information sitting on their computers, be sure you are protected. Cyber criminals are constantly looking for ways to create more powerful viruses by looking for loopholes. Don’t give them the chance to do so.
- Beware of Phishing Scams – Sneaky emails, links, and unsolicited phone calls are all ploys that cyber criminals use to get your personal information. They impersonate legitimate businesses to try and steal your identity. In July 2015, a group of attackers mimicked Google account login screens to steal users’ information. Google not only unknowingly host the fake login page, but a Google SSL certificate also protected the page with a secure connection. Phishing scams are usually used post-breach, which was the case with eBay and Anthem, where criminals sent warnings to users advising them to change their passwords and directing them to a fake website to gain access to their information. Be wary of popups, only click on reliable links, install an anti-phishing toolbar, use firewalls, don’t give out personal information, and trust your gut.
Following a few simple rules can help you keep your personal information private and help you avoid becoming a victim. The tips above won’t do much good, though, if your identity is already stolen. Don’t become another statistic.
Looking for more ways to secure your credit card? Visit the Fiscal Tiger credit card learning and resource center for more guides. How does identity theft affect your credit score? You can find more articles at our credit score resource center.
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This post was updated February 28, 2019. It was originally published August 7, 2017.