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Identity theft: Do we really need to worry?

If you think that identity theft isn’t a serious concern, you just need to look at the numbers. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year.

Better safe than sorry
Woman shredding documents

How to protect your identity

Though you don’t need to live in a bubble, you do need to take some precautions to protect yourself from identity theft. Thieves can use your personal information to obtain credit, access your financial accounts and otherwise misuse your identity. You might not know that someone is using your identity until you start receiving debt collection calls, get denied credit or view your credit report.

How identity thieves work

Thieves can steal your identity through physically stealing your cards, by rifling through your garbage to find receipts and documents, by skimming numbers with a special storage device when processing your credit card, by changing your address and diverting your billing statements, by using phishing scams online or by pretexting through phone calls. With phishing, criminals use false pretenses and dummy websites to get you to click a link from your email or social media messages and then enter your account numbers or other personal info. With pretexting, thieves call and pretend to be from survey companies or your financial institutions with the aim of getting your birth date, Social Security number and other vital info.

Though thieves can be crafty, that doesn’t mean you need to constantly worry about your identity being stolen. You just need to use common sense and take some extra precautions to deter criminals and protect your identity as much as possible. Though nothing is foolproof, these tips will help.

What you can do

  • Don’t give out personal information on the telephone, via the mail or over the internet. On the phone, only disclose info if you are the one who initiated the call.
  • Shred all receipts and documents that have personal information before discarding them in the trash.
  • Watch your credit card when you hand it over to the staff while at stores or restaurants. Make sure you get it promptly returned.
  • Secure your belongings at the airport or other crowded locations. Millions of laptops, tablets and smartphones get stolen each year — with more than half of them holding personal information.
  • Of the same vein, use passwords to lock your computers and smartphones when not in use to deter thieves from accessing your vital information. Do not use obvious passwords like your birth date or phone number, and change your passwords often.
  • Install firewalls and antimalware/antivirus software on your computer. Never click links in unsolicited email or download apps from unfamiliar sources.
  • Check your credit report often and be diligent with checking your bank account and credit card statements. If you suspect fraud, report it immediately.
  • Keep your Social Security card in a secure place at home. Don’t carry it in your wallet or purse.
  • Always use secure websites by using https:// instead of http:// in front of the URL. Look for the lock icon. Never do online shopping from a public computer in a library, cafe or other public place.
  • Make sure that your wireless connection is encrypted at home. Disable file and printer sharing capabilities while at public hot spots.

Quick tip

Visit the FTC’s identity theft site to learn more about how to avoid identity theft and what to do about it if problems arise.

More about money and identity theft

Tips for keeping your retirement plan on track
10 Signs you may be a victim of identity theft
What’s on your credit report?

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