How to Protect Your Identity
Identity theft is a growing problem. Once it has been stolen, thieves obtain money, services, products, and even jobs in your name.
Thieves trick you into giving them information over the Internet or phone. They steal wallets and mail. They overhear your conversations in public places, or they sift through garbage to find sensitive information.
Much of your personal data is already publicly available, thanks to voter registration records, real estate transactions, and divorce proceedings. Increasingly, identity thieves have access to your information via the Internet.
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If your identity is stolen, it can take years to clear your name. Your credit history might be ruined, and you might lose substantial sums of money. It is impossible to completely protect your information, but here are steps you may wish to take to reduce your risk.
Don't toss; shred instead. Buy a personal shredder for home use, and shred any documents that contain personal information, including credit card numbers, account numbers, Social Security numbers, birth dates, previous and current addresses, passwords, phone numbers, and driver's license numbers.
That means you should shred all bills, banks statements, credit card receipts, ID cards, and even any financial junk mail you plan to throw away. Thieves search trash to find these documents.
Review your credit report at least annually. Make sure the data is accurate, and close any accounts you no longer use. If you find errors, contact the credit reporting agency, not the creditor that filed the information.
Don't have mail delivered to or send mail from an unlocked mailbox. Instead use a locked mail box, rent a post office box, or take care of it online using a secure website. Never put any information about yourself on a postcard or on the outside of an envelope other than a return address.
If you suddenly don't receive mail, contact the local post office immediately. Thieves are known to submit change of address forms that route your mail to them.
Restrict access to your personal data. Remove your name from as many databases as possible. For example, registering with the Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service at www.dmachoice.org/dma/member/regist.action
will remove your name from many mailing lists. You can reach all three credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Transunion, and Experian) by dialing 888-567-8688.
Never give out personal information to someone who contacts you via the telephone or Internet. Only provide information if you have initiated the contact. Avoid entering contests that require you to provide your name, address, or other personal or financial information. Get a new "nonpublished" telephone number from the phone company.
It's not perfect, but it'll reduce access to your phone number and address. Expect to pay a fee for keeping your new number out of the telephone directory.
Make sure your computer is secure. Install a firewall and software to prevent and detect viruses and spyware. Never include personal information in an email, and never click links or open attachments in unsolicited email (also known as spam).
Don't cut and paste a link from an email or pop-up ad into your web browser — fraudsters can make links look like they go one place, but that actually send you to a different site (a practice called phishing). Instead, enter the website or phone number from your bank statement or bill.
When you use a credit card to make a purchase online, look for a padlock that identifies it as a secure website and make sure it begins with the letters https://.
Limit what you share on social networking sites, especially your birthday and address. Don't leave passwords taped to your monitor or anywhere else where others can find them.
Photocopy all documents you carry in your wallet or purse. On that copy, write the telephone number and e-mail address for each source. Also carry with you the following information:
TransUnion: 800-888-4213; fraud division: 800-680-7289
Equifax: 800-685-1111; fraud division: 888-766-0008
Experian: 888-397-3742; fraud division: 888-397-3742
Also keep with you the telephone number for your state's department of motor vehicles.
Keep the photocopies with you, but stored away from your wallet or purse. This way, if your wallet or purse is lost or stolen, you can immediately notify those who need to know.
Your Social Security Number is the most important number to guard. With it, thieves can open bank and credit card accounts in your name.
Unfortunately, your Social Security Number is easy to get once a thief has your name and address. Therefore, make it hard for the thief to get your address and telephone number.
Also, avoid using your Social Security Number as an ID number. If your state uses it as your driver's license number, request an alternative number from the state department of motor vehicles.
If you use your SSN as an ID or password number, change your ID or password. Never use any part of your SSN as a PIN, especially on the Internet or with bank accounts.
Never carry your SS card with you. Store it in a fireproof safe along with other important documents. If you have not done so already, memorize your SSN. Never carry any document bearing your Social Security Number.
Any time you are asked for your SSN, such as at the doctor's office, ask to use a different number. In most cases, your SSN is not required and is used by vendors unnecessarily. Try to avoid giving your SSN over the phone or on the Internet.
Limit the information you have printed on your checks — the less the better. Instead of using your first name, consider using your first initial. Avoid using your middle name or initial.
Do not include your driver's license number, Social Security Number, or telephone number. Never write a credit card or Social Security Number on a check.
Use checks only when paying bills through the mail; in stores, use charge or debit cards. Never add information to a charge card slip (such as your phone number or address).
It is illegal to ask you to do so in most states. Always take your card receipts with you; check them against your monthly statement before shredding.
Do not use any part of your address or birth date as a PIN. Never write your PIN anywhere.
Stop giving people your mother's maiden name. It helps crooks access private information about you.
When a new credit card arrives, sign the back immediately using permanent ink. Never carry more than two credit cards.
Don't give your credit card number over the phone unless you initiated the call, and never do so in a public place, including at work. Never give your credit card number when using a portable or cell phone. If a credit card you've ordered does not arrive promptly, call the card issuer.
When you buy an item, keep the warranty information, but don't mail the warranty reply card, especially if it is a postcard. (Doing so offers you no protection you don't already have.)
Keep important papers in a bank safe deposit box or in a home safe that is fire and burglar resistant. These documents include your Social Security card; marriage license; pay stubs; credit cards; military papers; and bank, investment, tax, and real estate records.
Remember that identity thieves are not always strangers. They could be co-workers, friends, relatives, roommates, and others physically or emotionally close to you.
Thieves often steal from people they know, sometimes because they know you are unlikely to suspect them, and sometimes because they know you are unlikely to punish them.
Learn more about protecting your identity at www.ftc.gov/idtheft.
What to Do If You Are a Victim of Identity Theft: An Overview
Thieves who assume your identity work quickly to drain your bank and investment accounts and borrow money in your name. By the time you discover the theft — which can take months or even years — you might have lost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, and you may spend months or years untangling the web of mischief the thieves created.
Until you clean up the mess, your credit report is likely to be in tatters; cashiers may treat you like a thief, and you will make dozens of phone calls in an attempt to straighten things out.
In spite of your best efforts, you may still become a victim. Therefore, prevention is not enough. You must also vigilantly monitor the following:
Bank and credit card accounts. By the time you learn that you've bounced a check or are informed that your credit card limit has been exceeded, the damage is already done.
Unfortunately, most financial institutions use U.S. mail to notify you; few phone or email you.
This delay can make the problem worse. To protect yourself, minimize the number of bank and credit card accounts you hold, and check the balances regularly. Most allow you to do this through automated telephone menus or the Internet.
Mail service. Know your billing and statement cycles. Bank, investment, and credit card statements that fail to arrive on time might have been stolen.
Thieves could have raided your mailbox, found an old statement in your trash, or gleaned information from your check or credit card number when you used it in a store or restaurant.
However they got it, they sometimes use the data to submit a fraudulent change of address form with the institution. They might create fake checks on their computers, or they might shop with a fake card that carries your number. So, if your mail is late, investigate.
Your credit report. Ideally, you'd look at it weekly to see if any accounts have been opened in your name without your knowledge or if any of your legitimate accounts show unauthorized activity.
Weekly is ideal because someone who steals your identity will cause extensive damage during the first week to ten days. But let's get real — nobody looks at their credit report that often due to the time and effort involved. So, examine yours at least annually. And if you see old accounts listed that you no longer use, close them. LINK