Tips on avoiding identity theft are everywhere, and we probably all know someone who’s had to deal with this issue. But even though we’re all aware of the risk, it’s sometimes easy to become lax in taking regular precautions. So here’s your reminder to stay on top of this, and some easy reference points to help make it take less time. We can never protect ourselves completely, but we can certainly make identity theft a lot more difficult and less likely.
Rreview your credit report periodically. Check to make sure that all the information contained in it is correct, and be on the lookout for any fraudulent activity. You may get your credit report for free once a year. To do so, contact the Annual Credit Report Request Service online at www.annualcreditreport.com or call (877) 322-8228.
If you need to correct any information or dispute any entries, contact the three national credit reporting agencies:
- Equifax: www.equifax.com
- Experian: www.experian.com
- TransUnion: www.transunion.com
Secure your Social Security number (SSN). Never carry your Social Security card with you unless you’ll need it. Don’t have your SSN preprinted on your checks, and don’t let merchants write it on your checks. Don’t give it out over the phone unless you initiate the call to an organization you trust. Ask the three major credit reporting agencies to truncate it on your credit reports. Try to avoid listing it on employment applications; offer instead to provide it during a job interview.
Carry only the cards and/or checks you’ll need for any one trip. Most of us carry our checkbooks and all of our credit cards, debit cards, and telephone cards with us all the time. That’s a bad idea; if your wallet or purse is stolen, the thief will have a treasure chest of new toys to play with. Also keep a written record of all your account numbers, credit card expiration dates, and the telephone numbers of the customer service and fraud departments in a secure place–at home.
Keep your receipts. When you make a purchase with a credit or debit card, you’re given a receipt. Don’t throw it away or leave it behind; it may contain your credit or debit card number. And don’t leave it in the shopping bag inside your car while you continue shopping; if your car is broken into and the item you bought is stolen, your identity may be as well. Save your receipts until you can check them against your monthly credit card and bank statements, and watch your statements for purchases you didn’t make.
When you toss it, shred it. Before you throw out any financial records such as credit or debit card receipts and statements, cancelled checks, or even offers for credit you receive in the mail, shred the documents, preferably with a cross-cut shredder.
Keep a low profile. The more your personal information is available to others, the more likely you are to be victimized by identity theft. While you don’t need to become a hermit in a cave, there are steps you can take to help minimize your exposure:
- To stop telephone calls from national telemarketers, list your telephone number with the Federal Trade Commission’s National Do Not Call Registry by calling (888) 382-1222 or registering online at www.donotcall.gov
- To remove your name from most national mailing and e-mailing lists, as well as most telemarketing lists, write the Direct Marketing Association at 1120 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036-6700, or register online at www.dmachoice.org
- To remove your name from marketing lists prepared by the three national consumer reporting agencies, call (888) 567-8688 or register online at www.optoutprescreen.com
- When given the opportunity to do so by your bank, investment firm, insurance company, and credit card companies, opt out of allowing them to share your financial information with other organizations
- You may even want to consider having your name and address removed from the telephone book and reverse directories
Be aware of electronic data theft. Install a firewall to prevent hackers from obtaining information from your hard drive. Virus protection software also helps with this. Protect sensitive information with a strong password–one that’s six to eight characters long, and that contains letters (upper and lower case), numbers, and symbols. It shouldn’t be a dictionary word, your name, birthdate, etc. Make it hard to guess.
Opening e-mails from people you don’t know, especially if you download attached files or click on hyperlinks within the message, can expose you to viruses, infect your computer with “spyware” that captures information by recording your keystrokes, or lead you to “spoofs” (websites that replicate legitimate business sites) designed to trick you into revealing personal information that can be used to steal your identity. This can also happen when friends’ address books are hacked, so exercise caution with any message that doesn’t seem like something your friend would typically send.
If you wish to visit a business’s legitimate website, use your stored bookmark or type the URL address directly into the browser. If you provide personal or financial information about yourself over the Internet, do so only at secure websites; to determine if a site is secure, look for a URL that begins with “https” (instead of “http”) or a lock icon on the browser’s status bar.
And when it comes time to upgrade to a new computer, remove all your personal information from the old one before you dispose of it. Using the “delete” function isn’t sufficient to do the job; overwrite the hard drive by using a “wipe” utility program. The minimal cost of investing in this software may save you from being wiped out later by an identity thief.