How to prevent identity theft
10 ways to protect yourself
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There are many ways your personal information might fall into the wrong hands: A thief might rifle through your unopened mail, or an organization you do business with might be hacked.
Most of the time, though, our identity is stolen when we’re interacting online. “We essentially hand our personal information to criminals daily,” Steve Tcherchian, the chief information security officer at XYPRO, a cybersecurity solutions company, told us.
Despite how common identity theft is, there are many things you can do to keep your personal information out of the hands of criminals. We’ve compiled the best advice from government agencies and security experts to help you keep your private data safe.
- Periodically check your accounts for suspicious activity and report unusual activity immediately.
- Secure important documents, and don’t give out personal information, especially on social media.
- Ask businesses and organizations you work with how they plan to keep your data safe.
- Use complex passwords and two-factor authentication for online accounts.
How to protect yourself from identity theft
The most important thing to remember is to keep close tabs on all your sensitive materials. Never give out information to people who call you over the phone. Be cautious when shopping online, and be sure to enable all your cellphone’s security features.
» MORE CONTEXT: Identity theft statistics
1. Keep track of sensitive material
Store your driver’s license, Social Security card, passport and other important documents in a safe place. Always shred credit card offers, bank statements and receipts. Pay attention to credit reports, bills and financial statements — don’t hesitate to contact a sender if you’re missing a bill and haven’t enrolled in paperless billing.
2. Don’t leave your mail uncollected
Notify your post office if you will be out of town for more than a day by placing a hold on your mail.
3. Monitor your credit score and bank accounts
Most Americans rely on their credit company or bank to monitor activity, but there are other steps you can take to stay safe from identity theft. For example, you can sign up for a credit monitoring service.
4. Keep your passwords hard to guess
Passwords that are sentences or phrases are more difficult to guess than a name or single word. Avoid sequential numbers (1234), and include at least one special character (@!).
5. Get two-factor authentication alerts
Ideally, two-factor identification is another layer of security that ensures only trusted devices can access your account. Receiving these alerts from services you don’t recognize can be signs of a phishing scam or indicate an identity thief has signed up for these services using your information.
6. Don’t respond to unsolicited requests for personal information
Sharing your Social Security number (SSN) or other sensitive information should always be done with caution, especially over the phone. Never give out the number if you did not initiate the call, and always verify why the person needs it. Try to give an alternate form of identification if possible.
7. Know how to stay safe online
Today, the majority of identity theft happens online. “Social media is the No. 1 platform used by thieves to collect our personal info,” Tcherchian told us. “Because of social media postings, criminals no longer have to work hard.” He advises keeping all personal information off social media due to the likelihood of your identity being stolen when you overshare.
Never provide your SSN over email. Only use reputable websites, and avoid making purchases on unsecured networks. Attackers often use phishing scams, pretending to be a trusted business over email or text so they can collect your info (usually saying there’s a problem with your account). To protect against these attacks, don’t click suspicious emails, and don’t respond to texts from numbers you don’t know.
8. Be careful with public Wi-Fi
Free public internet might feel like a blessing, but it also can make you vulnerable to identity theft. Unencrypted public Wi-Fi is sometimes used by hackers as a hunting ground for data and information since public Wi-Fi doesn’t make use of mutual authentication.
Always use a firewall and update sharing settings when using a public Wi-Fi network. Consider getting a VPN (virtual private network), which ensures security on a public network by extending your private network.
9. Freeze or lock your accounts
If you don’t plan on opening any new lines of credit soon, it might be a good idea to freeze or lock your accounts. Freezing your account with the three reporting bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) will restrict access to your records and prevent attackers from opening new lines of credit in your name.
A credit lock is an easier alternative to a credit freeze but with fewer legal protections. You can unlock a credit lock at any time on your smartphone, while a freeze takes more time to “thaw” or undo.
10. Trust your instincts
As ConsumerAffairs reviewer Karen from California put it, “Nothing protects better than not being careless: don’t open emails or texts from those you don’t know and don’t open links.”
If a phone call, email, text message or website feels suspicious, don’t be afraid to hang up or ignore it while you check its legitimacy. Contact the organization yourself so you can confirm it’s not a phishing scam. It’s much easier to confirm a contact is legit than to deal with the fallout of identity theft.
How do identity thieves use your personal information?
Your Social Security number can be used to create new accounts, take out a loan or apply for a job. A ConsumerAffairs reviewer from Kansas learned this the hard way: “My identity was stolen and false unemployment claims were filed under my social security in both 2020 and 2021 … I am still working with the Attorney General’s office to clear this matter up.”
Other ways thieves might use your information is to drain your bank account and make fraudulent purchases. Someone can also use your information to see a doctor or get prescription drugs. If you lose your driver’s license or your wallet is stolen, someone might use your ID to avoid a DUI or speeding ticket or might try to purchase controlled items.
If you suspect you’ve already been targeted by an identity thief, learn how to check for identity theft and then report it.
» MORE: How to report identity theft
What is the most common form of identity theft?
Credit card fraud is, by far, the most common form of identity theft, accounting for 40% of all reports in 2022. Monitor your monthly credit card statements for unauthorized activity, and report any suspicious transactions to your credit card company as soon as you spot them.
What’s the safest way to keep track of passwords?
Because the most secure passwords are often long and difficult to remember, the safest way to keep track of passwords is to store them in a reputable password manager. To find a reputable password manager, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends consulting independent review sites and reaching out to friends and family to ask which password managers have worked for them.
How do I keep my children safe from identity theft?
You can protect your kids from identity theft by keeping important documents like birth certificates and medical documents in a lockbox. Ask questions anytime an organization requests your child’s Social Security number — “Why do you need this information?” or “How do you plan on keeping my child’s information safe?”
The FTC recommends removing all your child’s personal information from any computers, tablets or cellphones they no longer use.
How do I keep my aging parents safe from identity theft?
Banks and credit unions often have information sessions aimed at protecting customers against fraud. Though it’s difficult to discuss, you should ask your parents if there’s someone they trust to help them with their finances if they were suddenly unable to do so. Encourage them to create an advanced plan or grant a trusted person of their choice power of attorney so that person can monitor their accounts for unusual activity.
- Article sources
- ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “Older Americans are not alone in the fight to stop financial abuse.” Accessed June 16, 2023.
- Federal Trade Commission, “How to Protect Your Child From Identity Theft.” Accessed June 20, 2023.
- Federal Trade Commission “Password Checklist.” June 19, 2023.
- Federal Trade Commission, “What to Know About Credit Freezes and Fraud Alerts.” Accessed June 20, 2023.
- Federal Trade Commission, “Who experiences scams? A story for all ages.” Accessed June 16, 2023.
- USAGov, “Identity Theft.” Accessed June 20, 2023.
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