If you’re worried about identity theft you have plenty of good reasons.
Tens of millions of people had their accounts compromised in some way in the past year alone after hackers breached U.S. retailers’ computer systems. The Federal Trade Commission has listed ID theft-related issues as the top consumer complaint for over a decade.
How can you protect yourself from identity theft and the havoc it can create? Lots of ways, it turns out. Here’s a quick checklist of practices to implement now to protect your personal information:
Don’t automatically provide personal information when it’s requested — think about who’s asking, why it’s needed and find out what will be done with it and how it will be protected. Never give out such details to a stranger who calls or sends an email request, no matter what is being offered as an inducement. Never disclose personal identification numbers (PINs) and don’t write them down where they may be discovered. Instead, memorize each one.
Lock it up
Keep vital records and documents such as your Social Security card and birth and marriage certificates locked in a safe place, and if you can’t have your purse or wallet with you at work, put it in a secure spot. At home, don’t leave things such as bills, tax returns, paycheck stubs and bank records lying around where they may be seen by roommates or workers passing through. Put a lock on your mailbox. Create a file with account numbers, expiration dates and contact information for use if anything gets lost or stolen.
Destroy, don’t toss
Shred or incinerate unneeded documents with sensitive information, such as credit offers, bills, old prescription containers, bank statements and medical forms. Cut up old credit cards especially where numbers are embossed or printed.
Before using a cash machine, self-serve fuel pump or the card-swiping device at a store, give it a close examination to spot any abnormalities. If something seems out of place or unusual, don’t use it. Hackers sometimes put phony card-reading “skimmers” on automated teller machines, pumps and checkout registers to scoop up consumers’ account data. Often, these malicious mechanisms can be easy to notice if you’re on the lookout for them.
Go over your account information meticulously to spot any unfamiliar activity. Review your checking account transactions at least weekly, and study credit card bills closely each month. Check others, like individual retirement accounts, at least quarterly and make an annual habit of requesting your credit report from each of the three main bureaus that collect the information: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. They’re all obliged to give you a free copy each year, when asked. Read each with an eye out for unfamiliar activity or errors.
Be on guard online
Install firewalls and antivirus programs on your computer and consider encrypting any files containing personal information. Exercise caution when providing personal details such as birth dates and credit or debit card numbers to websites and avoid exchanging private data over public Wi-Fi networks.
Identity theft affected 16.6 million Americans in 2012, leading to almost $25 billion in losses. Taking precautions including those above can help you avoid joining them.