Perhaps you've always thought that identify theft would never happen to you. However, the harsh reality is that individuals and financial institutions lose billions of dollars each year due to identity theft. Take precautions to protect personal information from hackers and thieves.
When your personal information has been compromised and you become a victim of identity theft, it can be a very complicated and stressful issue. Therefore, you should do everything you can to avoid being taken advantage of.
How they do it
Thieves can steal your identity through physically stealing your cards and documents, by rummaging through your trash, by skimming numbers with a special storage device when processing your credit cards, by changing your address and diverting your billing statements, by phishing or by pretexting.
With phishing, they pretend to be financial institutions or companies and send spam email or social media messages online to get you to reveal your Social Security number, back account numbers, credit card numbers and other personal information. With pretexting, they use false pretenses to obtain your information -- such as claiming they are calling from a research firm or other organization to get your name, birth date and Social Security number. From there, they attempt to get your account information from financial institutions, and then usually sell that information to people who use your credit, steal your money and otherwise use your identity.
How to reduce the risk
Though there's no way to completely eliminate the risk of identity fraud, you can greatly reduce it.
- Don't carry your Social Security card with you. Instead, keep it in a safe, secure location at home or in a safe deposit box. Also, reduce the items you carry -- such as extra credit cards and checkbooks.
- When traveling or spending time in unfamiliar or crowded areas, carry a close-fitting pouch instead of a purse and keep your wallet in a front pocket or in your sock.
- Cut up, tear into small pieces or use a shredder to destroy all mail and other documents with your Social Security, bank and credit card numbers. Consider switching to paperless billing to help save trees, and avoid having so much paper around with your pertinent information.
- Pay bills online or place mail with checks in a secure post box or at the post office.
- Check your credit report regularly for unrecognizable new accounts.
- Sign up for your state's "No Call" list, if it has one.
- To stop credit card offers, call the "Opt Out Line" at 888-567-8688 or go to www.optoutprescreen.com.
- Remove your name from mailing lists by sending a letter with your name and mailing address to Mail Preference Service, P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale, New York 11735.
Take precautions online
- Only shop online from secure websites that you know and trust.
- Only download apps and programs from the official marketplaces or reputable sites.
- Type the URL into the address bar instead of clicking on links in your email.
- Set up a separate email account to register for newsletters, email alerts and other things that require an email address. This way, you can help protect your personal information -- as well as limit the spam in your regular inbox at the same time.
- Install an antivirus/antimalware program on your computer.
- Use a password on your smartphone, tablet and PC to keep it locked from others when you aren't using it.
- Keep your software and apps up-to-date. Outdated software can often become vulnerable to attacks.
What to do if you become a victim of identity theft
- Keep a list of contact numbers for your credit and debit cards in an easy-to-find place. Call immediately when you discover a problem.
- If you have a problem, contact the three credit reporting agencies: Equifax, 800-525-6285; Experian, 800-311-4769; TransUnion, 800-680-7289.
- For more information about identity theft, go to the Federal Trade Commission's web site at www.ftc.gov/idtheft where you can find brochures on what to do if your identity is stolen and how to safeguard your child's future.
- Consider signing up for identity theft protection service offered by LifeLock.
- Contact Call for Action at 866-434-6854 for instructions on how to deal with identity fraud. You can check out their brochure, "Identity Theft Resources," at www.callforaction.org.
More identity protection tips
How to protect yourself from identity theft
Is your home security at risk?
10 Tips to prevent identity fraud during the holidays