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How to prevent identity theft

The 10 best ways to protect yourself from identity theft

by Kathryn Parkman ConsumerAffairs Research Team
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How is identity theft committed?

Your personal information can easily fall into the wrong hands. Often, thieves search through trash for sensitive documents, but increasingly information is stolen from online sources. You might fall prey to a fraudulent phishing email that steals your information, or someone might use a “skimmer” to take your credit card number. Your information can also be leaked from companies you do business with, or hackers may access your wireless internet signal.

Your personal information can fall into the wrong hands in many ways. In the past we thought of identity theft in physical terms: someone found your Social Security number on a sensitive document in the garbage or swiped your credit card and ID from a misplaced wallet, a scam artist posing as a bill collector elicited your bank account number over the phone. But today, the majority of identity theft happens online.

How can you 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 strangers over the phone, be cautious when shopping online and be sure to enable all your cellphone’s security features. Here are 10 ways to protect yourself from identity theft:

  • Always 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.
  • Don’t leave mail uncollected in your mailbox
    Notify your post office if you will be out of town for more than a day by placing a hold on your mail.
  • Monitor your credit score
    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. Sign up for a credit monitoring service.
  • 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 (&#@!).
  • 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 an identity thief who has signed up for these services using your information.
  • Never respond to unsolicited requests for sensitive or personal information
    Sharing your Social Security number 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.
  • Know how to stay safe online
    Never share your SSN over email for any reason, only use reputable websites and avoid making purchases on unsecured networks. Seniors are particularly vulnerable to phishing schemes and other online attacks because they are less familiar with technology. Seniors should be careful not to overshare on social media. Like anyone, seniors should keep their personal documents and information secure, especially if they are in an assisted living facility or have in-home care.
  • Stay safe on public Wi-Fi
    Free public internet might feel like a blessing, but it’s also making you vulnerable to identity theft. Unencrypted public Wi-Fi is sometimes used as a hunting group for hackers who circumvent mutual authentication to collect your data and information. Always use a firewall and update sharing settings when using a public Wi-Fi network. Considering getting a VPN (virtual private network), which ensures security on a public network by extending your private network.
  • Freeze or lock your accounts
    Freezing your account with the three reporting bureaus will restrict access to your records. A credit lock is an easier alternative to a credit freeze, but with less legal protections. You can unlock a credit lock at any time on your smartphone, whereas a freeze will take more time to “thaw.”
  • Trust your instincts
    If a phone call, email, text message or website feels suspicious, don’t engage. It will be much easier for you to confirm a contact is legit than deal with the fallout of identity theft. For example, if you receive a special offer from your bank and it doesn’t feel right, you should call them to confirm it’s not a phishing scam.
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How can identity thieves use your personal information?

If an identity thief gets ahold of your information, it can be used in many ways. Your Social Security number can be used to create new accounts, take out a loan or apply for a job. Your bank account can be drained and fraudulent purchases can be made. Someone can 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’re a parent, teach your kids safe online practices, and limit what information you post about them on social media. If you get suspicious mail for your child, consider checking your child’s credit report, and report any fraudulent activity.
  • If you’re a veteran, take care to set up active-duty alerts and notify banks and agencies when you move to keep your information safe. It’s also important to read your financial statements often and routinely check your credit report. If you were recently deployed, you might not have noticed fraudulent activity.
  • If you’re a business owner, install encryption software on company computers and networks to prevent breaches. Only allow a few trustworthy employees to have access to sensitive information, such as Tax ID numbers. Monitor your company’s credit report the same way you would your own.

If you suspect you’ve already been targeted by an identity thief, you will need to learn how to check for identity theft and then report it.

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by Kathryn Parkman ConsumerAffairs Research Team

As a member of the ConsumerAffairs Research Team, Kathryn Parkman believes everyone deserves easy access to accurate and comprehensive information on products and businesses before they make a purchase, which is why she spends hours researching companies and industries for ConsumerAffairs. She believes conscious consumption is everyone's responsibility and that all content deserves integrity.