How to Prevent Identity Theft

If a thief takes your personal information and uses it for financial gain, you have been a victim of identity theft. Criminals can use your personal information to reroute your mail, open bank accounts in your name, and fraudulently apply for loans and credit. You may not know somebody has been using your identity until creditors come knocking on your door.

However, there are some simple solutions to help prevent this crime:

Inside the Home

Bank statements, bills, receipts, photos, pre-approved credit card mail, junk mail with your personal address, jotted down phone numbers, warranty cards – you’ll be amazed how many pieces of paper have your personal information on it. And once it’s thrown out, it’s fair game. There is no law making it illegal to take your garbage, commonly known as “dumpster diving.” Once you throw it out, it’s in the public domain. With this in mind, you can protect yourself.

  • Invest in a cross-cut shredder (it shreds paper both ways, not straight strips which can be pieced together)
  • Shred all old bills, bank statements, credit cards, personal notes, anything that has your personal information or address on it.
  • Retrieve all your mail promptly. Track your regular mail, such as bills, bank statements and magazine subscriptions. If they suddenly stop, somebody may have changed your address.
  • If you’ve purchased a high-ticket item, such as a computer or big screen tv, disguise the box you throw out by breaking it down and placing it in a bag. That way dumpster divers won’t tag you as having a high income.
  • Review all your bank and credit card statements for suspicious purchases and activity
  • Move your bills and bank statements online, so there is less paper with your identity printed on it
  • Protect your computer with specialized identity theft software

Outside the Home

A few simple precautions will greatly reduce your chances of attracting the attention of an identity thief.

  • Carry only the credit cards you need when you go out
  • Do not carry your social security card in your wallet. If some companies or medical plans need this card for identification, ask for an alternative way to identify yourself.
  • When paying for a transaction, make sure you can see your card while the business person swipes it. A common technique is for unscrupulous employees to double swipe your card, once in the real cash machine and once in a fraudulent machine that captures your information.
  • Cover the keypad when you enter your P.I.N. number. A common method is “shoulder surfing”, where a thief surreptitiously looks over your shoulder
  • Remember that a vast majority of identity theft occurs the old fashioned way – by stealing your purse or wallet. Call the police immediately, as well as your credit card company and your financial institution.

The Phone and Internet

  • Treat all financial emails with caution – a common way to steal your information is through so called “phishing” emails. A criminal will spam a vast amount of people with an email that looks exactly like a government agency, charity or financial institution such as a bank. They will usually ask you to verify or update your information by clicking on a link. This link may look legitimate, but has code within the email that will redirect you to another site that looks exactly like the real site. When in doubt, call customer service and see if they actually sent the email. Another way is to not click the link in the email, but to type it directly into the address bar of your web browser.
  • Similar to fraudulent phishing emails, criminals may phone or mail you pretending to be official institutions asking for your account information. Real companies will never ask you for this, through the phone, mail or via email.
  • Do not give your credit card over the phone, unless you made the contact first.
  • Sometimes a charity you do not usually deal with will solicit you for information. If you feel guilty refusing, ask instead for a pamphlet, and that you will send your donation through the mail. A legitimate charity will be more than happy to send you more information rather than demand a donation from you up front.
  • Practice good internet surfing habits. Use strong passwords with a combination of numbers and letters. Download free software from sites you trust, as a lot of what is “free” has spyware to offset their costs. Erase spyware and viruses through anti-virus and spyware protection, such as Norton Anti-Virus, AVG or Avast as a good anti-virus software, and Ad-Aware and Spybot to search for spyware and advertising embedded on your computer.
  • Before making a purchase online, check for a few features on the page. Make sure the site is secure. You can find out if it is secure if the address bar begins with the words “https”, meaning the page will encrypt your information when you send it. Internet Explorer will also have a lock icon on the bottom right of your browser window. Also, a legitimate e-commerce site will have a privacy policy and contact information. Don’t be afraid to ask how they process your financial information. A lot of smaller Internet businesses will have a secure bank or other financial institution process all their transactions.

Sometimes, You Can’t Stop the Thieves

That’s because some forms of theft are out of your control. You’ve watched the news and heard about computers being stolen from financial institutions, bank websites being hacked, and databases being leaked. This is a significant way to gain your information, for often your personal details, banking information and insurance policies are listed in these records. Employees can be bribed (or they are the perpetrators), conned out of your information, or simply pose as you to receive information.

Fortunately, there are companies who will protect your information for you. Click to view a comparison of these services.

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