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Don't give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or on the internet unless you've initiated the contact or are sure you know who you're dealing with. Identity thieves are clever, and have posed as representatives of banks, internet service providers (ISPs) and even government agencies to get people to reveal their Social Security numbers, account numbers and other identifying information. Before you share any personal information, confirm that you're dealing with a legitimate organization.
Be wary online
Check an organization's website by typing its URL in the address line, rather than cutting and pasting it in or clicking on any link (on a website or in email). Also, don't open email attachments from unfamiliar sources. Many companies post scam alerts on their sites when their name has been used improperly. Call customer service using the number listed on your account statement or in the telephone book rather than one you might receive in an email or on a phone message.
Know your vendors
Only download programs and apps from familiar, reputable vendors. Use the official website or official marketplace whenever possible to download anything onto your PC, tablet or smartphone. Don't purchase anything online from an unsecured website -- look for the lock symbol at checkout. Also, keep your antivirus/antispyware protection updated on your computer.
Treat your mail carefully
Deposit your outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office, rather than in an unsecured mailbox. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox. If you're planning to be away from home and can't pick up your mail, call the U.S. Postal Service at 800-275-8777 to request a vacation hold. The postal service will hold your mail at your local post office until you can pick it up or are home to receive it.
Invest in a shredder
Tear or shred your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, expired credit or charge cards and credit offers you get in the mail. This will help to thwart a thief who may pick through your trash or recycling bins to capture your personal information. To opt out of receiving offers of credit in the mail based on your credit report, call: 888-5-OPTOUT (888-567-8688). The nationwide consumer reporting companies use the same toll-free number to let you opt out of receiving credit offers based on their lists. Note: You will be asked to provide your Social Security number, which the consumer reporting companies need to match you with your file.
Protect your Social Security number
Don't carry your Social Security card in your wallet -- store it in a secure place. Give your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary, and ask to use other types of identifiers. If your state uses your Social Security number as your driver's license number, ask to substitute another number. Do the same if your health insurance company uses your Social Security number as your policy number.
Carry only what you need
Carry only the identification information and the credit and debit cards that you'll actually need when you go out. If your wallet is stolen -- or if you lose it -- report it immediately to the card issuers and the local police.
Be very cautious
Keep your purse or wallet in a safe place at work -- do the same with copies of administrative forms that have your sensitive personal information. Also, be cautious when responding to promotions. Identity thieves may create phony promotional offers to get you to give them your personal information. A good rule of thumb is to only give personal information out when you have contacted a company first. And lastly, when you order new checks, pick them up from the bank rather than having them sent to your home through the mail.
More identity protection tips
How to protect yourself from identity theft
Is your home a security risk?
10 Tips to prevent identity fraud during the holidays