Identity theft affects nine million people in America a year. On average, the victim ends up spending forty hours and over $400 correcting the criminal’s errors. You don’t want your identity used to finance a thief. Here are some practical steps you can take to keep protect your identity.
One of the biggest misconceptions about identity theft is that senior citizens are the most targeted compared to other age-groups. Statistics show that people in their 20’s and 30’s are targeted the most with having their identities stolen. Another fact to remember is that not all thefts are performed by strangers. Most of these crimes are committed by the victim’s friends, family members, neighbors or in-home care-takers.
The Internet is used identity thieves only ten percent of the time. The majority of thefts come from purses, wallets, credit card receipts, mail, or even garbage. Making yourself a tougher target will make it harder for your identity to be stolen. Remember these steps to ensure that your identity is protected.
Step 1: Social Security Card Security
- Never carry around your social security card unless you know you will need it. Otherwise, leave it at home; better yet, leave it in your safe deposit box.
- Do not give your Social Security number out over the phone.
- Do not put your Social Security number on your checks. Ask the Social Security Administration for an annual earnings and benefits statement to make sure that no one else is using your number.
- If someone else is using your number and contributing to your account, at some point in the future you might have to fight them for your SS benefits. And if you do collect from “their” contributions, you could be committing fraud.
Step 2. Secure your credit cards
- Carry only one or two credit cards with you at any one time.
- Print “ASK FOR PHOTO ID” on the signature line on the back of your credit cards. You will have to show your ID more often, but your credit cards are less likely to be used by anyone else.
- Have all the information you need to report a lost or stolen credit card readily available in a safe place. You can write down the account number, expiration date, security code on the back of the card and 24-hour emergency phone number you need to call. Or you can make photo copies of the front and back of each card. Just make sure you can read all of the numbers, including the emergency phone number.
- If a credit card expires and you don’t receive a replacement, call the credit card company.
- Protect your ATM and computer passwords. If you cannot remember them and must write them down, disguise them as phone numbers for mythical friends or relatives. But don’t make it obvious. Listing phone numbers for Joe Password or Peter Pin won’t really protect much.
- While most receipts only reveal the last four or five digits, watch out for any that print the full number. Take special precautions to safeguard and destroy those receipts.
- Cancel any credit cards that you do not use. Don’t just cut up the cards. Call or write the company and tell them to close your account.
- This could lower your credit score by reducing your total amount of available credit. One of the 30-or-so factors the formula measures is the percentage of available credit you are not using. But this also reduces the amount someone can steal.
- Watch for unauthorized charges by saving your credit card receipts. If that’s too much trouble, treat them the way you do checks. Start a “check register” for each credit card and keep a running tally, then compare it to your bill every month.
- Notify all of your credit card companies as soon as you move. You don’t want credit card statements or new credit cards going to your old address.
Step 3. Better shred then read
- Buy a shredder and shred every document that contains any sort of information personal or financial that could help a thief “become you” long enough to run amuck through your credit.
- This includes all those credit card and mortgage refinancing offers. Get a crosscut shredder that cuts the paper two ways. They are more expensive but they are worth it.
- There are also shredders that will chop up plastic, such as credit cards and CDs.
Step 4. Use your computer more — and more safely
- Since only 10% of identity theft is based on information stolen from computers, use your computer for financial transactions.
- If your company offers automatic payroll deposit, sign up for it. Sign up for online bill payments, too. Have your bank and credit cards statements sent to you by e-mail.
- To make those transactions more secure, make sure you have a firewall as well as anti-virus and spyware programs, and update them regularly.
- If you have a home wireless network, make sure it is encrypted, otherwise your neighbors or anyone who parks a car in front of your home could possibly access your network and your hard drive from a laptop computer.
- Do not respond to any suspicious e-mails. Banks do not send e-mails asking you to update or confirm information that they already have. When in doubt, phone the bank.
- While you cannot really “shred” your computer hard drive, you can wipe it before you get rid of it. Just hitting “delete” will not do the trick. The data is still there, and relatively easy to get at. There are programs that will actually wipe your hard drive.
- Before you use your credit card online, make sure you are on a secure site one that starts https instead of http or that the charges are handled in an encryption mode.
Step 5. Snail mail carefully
- When paying a bill by mail, or sending a credit card number on an order, drop it into an actual mailbox. Do not leave it for your letter carrier to pick up. Crooks steel mail out of mailboxes.
Step 6. Know your credit report
- Check your credit report for any credit activity or credit cards that are not yours. If you have five credit cards and your credit report lists eight, you need to get in touch with the other three credit card companies.
- While you are at it, make sure that everything it says about you and your credit is correct. Each credit report lists instructions on how to file corrections.
- You can get a free copy of your credit report every year from www.AnnualCreditReport.com. There are three major credit reporting agencies and they all carry pretty much the same information.
Stagger your free reports so that you can get one of them every four months.