Are You Really Protecting Yourself From Identity Theft?
Protecting yourself from the fraudulent use of your private identifying information requires a little effort, but it’s well worth the time, money, and anguish you can save. Know a bit about identity theft? Maybe so. Are you doing all you can to protect yourself? Maybe not.
At its most basic level, identity theft involves obtaining a person’s private identifying information in a fraudulent manner, and then using it for financial gain. Identity theft involves use of this information in one or more of four basic ways.
- Financial identity theft happens when someone opens a credit card in your name or uses your information fraudulently to buy items or invest in services or benefits you didn’t authorize.
- Criminal identity theft occurs when someone misrepresents himself or herself during an arrest to avoid a summons or to prevent discovery of other charges or outstanding warrants.
- Child identity theft involves using the name and Social Security number of a child (a family member or child of a friend or neighbor) to rent a home, gain employment, get loans, or avoid arrest on outstanding warrants.
- Medical identity theft occurs when a person seeks medical care in someone else’s name, in an attempt to avoid incurring health care costs they don’t want to or can’t afford to pay. In 2013, nearly 2 million Americans were victims of this type of identity theft.
Even if you use an identity protection plan, it’s important that you regularly check your financial and medical records, accounts, and credit reports. Nearly half of all identity theft victims discovered the theft themselves because they were paying attention to their accounts!
While there’s an endless number of ways to protect yourself from identity theft, we’ll just cover some main categories here.
- Protect and collect your mail. Put a lock on your mailbox or at least collect it every day to prevent mail theft. Don’t use your unsecured mailbox to send outgoing mail. Pay attention to what monthly bills you receive, and check your account right away if you notice a bill hasn’t arrived as usual. Identity thieves may redirect your mail when they steal it!
- Don’t make your trash an easy target for identity thieves. Use a cross-cut shredder to destroy new junk mail and credit applications, as well as old tax returns, work badges, statements, cards, and licenses; and any documents that include any combination of identifying information such as your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, and/or account numbers.
- Monitor your credit report Use AnnualCreditReport.com or obtain free reports from your bank or credit card company. If you don’t anticipate needing to open any new credit lines, consider freezing your credit with all three credit reporting agencies to prevent others from opening new accounts in your name. You can also consider locking your credit, but this doesn’t offer as much protection as freezing your credit—and may not be a free service for all credit reporting agencies.
- Reduce the information you carry with you. For each errand you run, only take the cards you need with you. Keep others that include your personal information and aren’t a daily necessity safely at home, along with photocopies of the back and front of all your cards in the event of a problem.
- Create strong (and different) passwords and PINs for your accounts so that if one account gets hacked, all of them aren’t compromised. Use at least 8 characters for passwords, with a combination of numbers, special symbols, and upper and lowercase letters, and change them regularly. Don’t use birthdays or anniversaries for your PINs. Consider using a password manager.
- Reduce the detail you provide in social media. Don’t telegraph when you’ll be in Europe (you invite theft), or broadcast your birthdate, birthplace, parents’ names, and pets in any social platform. These provide answers to commonly used security questions for your accounts, making your accounts vulnerable to identity thieves and hackers. Whenever possible, use information that’s not easily attained by others for your security questions.
- Be secure and suspicious. Browse securely, don’t use public WiFi to access your accounts, don’t open email attachments you’re not expecting, and be suspicious of anyone who asks for passwords or PINs via email or over the phone—even someone who says they’re the fraud protection department at your credit card company or the IRS.
- Review your medical and prescription records, always. If someone obtains medical services under your identity and it goes undetected, both your finances and your health could be jeopardized if things like your blood type, etc. are incorrect in your records when you actually need help in a medical emergency. Review all explanation of benefits (EOB) statements, and carefully shred all statements and unused medical cards, too.
These are just a few important tips to protect your identity. Do you have other tips for how to protect yourself, how to remember your passwords, or anything else related to keeping your identity safe? Share them with us here or on LinkedIn!