With the everyday use of online digital stores, credit card scanners, and debit card ATM machines, it’s easy to see why identity theft is running rampant. Anyone’s identity can be stolen. And the consequences of a stolen identity are far greater than they used to be.
First, what is Identity Theft?
Identity theft can range from stealing the use of your name, your driver’s license or license number, or your social security number. An identity thief uses this information to commit financial fraud or some other crime. He or she could open up bank accounts or credit cards in your name, obtain housing, or use your current credit cards. Not only will this result in you potentially losing your own money, it can also result in your going deeply in to debt and/or your credit score plummeting.
Of course, there’s also immense emotional distress involved when someone steals your identity. The violation is terrible, and knowing that you often cannot pinpoint the person who stole your identity means justice is limited. Time and energy must be spent trying to prove the theft occurred and repair the damage.
Why is it worse now than ever before?
A vast majority of your purchases and banking you do can be done online without ever having a personal interaction. With your private information in hand, identity thieves can access just about every financial aspect of your life. What used to result in a few fraudulent purchases on a credit card could now infiltrate every aspect of your financial life within a few days.
On the other hand, there are now far simpler ways of protecting your identity within reach. Following the suggestions in this article will help to prevent identity theft and address the appropriate steps if your identity is stolen.
How to avoid identity theft
- Pay attention to Your Online Practices
- Keep Your Paperwork Safe
- Check the Source
Pay attention to your online practices
We do most of our business and much of our shopping online now! Most of the time, this is totally safe. But occasionally, it puts you at great risk.
Use only safe online websites
When entering your personal information into a website, check to see that it is secure. You can tell that a website has been secured by the “HTTPS” at the beginning of the URL as opposed to “HTTP.” Of course, thieves get smarter everyday and eventually, it might not be that easy to check the security of a website. It’s always best to double check with the source either in person or on the phone that you’re on the correct website.
Along those same lines, do not use public Wi-Fi sources to enter personal information into websites. Others using the same Wi-Fi source could retrieve your information. If you do not have personal Wi-Fi, it’s best to borrow from a trusted friend or family member.
Protect your passwords
Nowadays, just about every website requires a login and password. What’s worse is just about every website has been hacked at one point or another, too! It is so important that you choose passwords unrelated to your personal information like birthdays or addresses. Mixing together letters and numbers also make it more difficult to guess.
Of course, just because you’ve chosen a strong password doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. Identity thieves can also bypass the need for a password altogether if they’re particularly experienced. That’s where two-factor authentication comes in handy. If the website you’re accessing offers two-factor authentication, take advantage of it. This usually requites a cell phone number or email address to which the website will send a second, original password (or code) to ensure it’s really you.
Avoid links you don’t recognize
One of the easiest ways for identity thieves to gather your information is to leave bait – digital bait. Whether it’s an email that appears legitimate or a link that pops up and appears interesting, never click the links!
Just opening an email or visiting a website is typically not enough for someone to gather your information. But clicking a link within an email or a webpage is a sure-fire way for someone to begin gathering your information without your permission.
Instead of clicking links, hover over them with your mouse. When you do, a URL will appear on your screen. If the URL appears to be real, open a new browser window and do a search for that URL. (If you’re on a mobile phone, you’ll need to wait until you can get to a computer or notebook in order to hover over that URL.) If you’re unfamiliar with the URL, leave it alone. You can always double back and email/call the source to determine whether or not it’s safe.
Protect your identity physically
One of the easiest ways to protect your identity is to keep it out of the hands of thieves. While it’s difficult to do that online, it’s fairly easy to do that in the real world.
Carry only the cards you need
It used to be typical to carry all of your credit cards, debits cards, license, and even social security cards in a wallet. However, there’s almost no reason to carry everything at once! Doing so means a thief only has to grab one thing and he or she has everything!
Make a color copy of every single financial card and identification card, front and back. Then, store your actual cards in a safe, locked place. Store the copy in a different location. This way if something is stolen or goes missing, you’ve got a copy of it and you can immediately begin making phone calls to the phone numbers on the back to report the theft. Only carry with you the information you need everyday – perhaps a license, one debit card, and one credit card.
Shred the old stuff
Like we learned in elementary school, just because you throw it away doesn’t mean it disappears. Be sure to shred anything with your social security number, credit card number, or driver’s license number. You cannot ever guarantee your paperwork will remain anonymous after it hits the dumpster. Bank statements and legal documents should be shredded, never tossed.
Expired credit cards and driver’s licenses should also be shredded prior to trashing.
Lock your Mailbox
Just as your information is vulnerable when it’s going out, it’s also vulnerable when it’s coming in! It is a federal offense to tamper with someone else’s mail, but that doesn’t stop a criminal. If possible, purchase a mailbox with a lock on the outside. A slot at the top allows the mailman to drop the mail while a lock keeps passersby out. These mailboxes are typically available at most home goods stores.
Check the Source
There are reasonable situations in which sharing your information makes sense! But even when it makes sense, you must beware.
Protect yourself on the phone
Identity thieves have some pretty ingenious ways of convincing you to simply hand over your personal information. A simple from call claiming to come from a credit bureau or the IRS might ask for you to “confirm” your information. It feels all too natural to give the authorities your information (especially if you’re rushed or in the middle of dinner).
You might think – really? How does anyone fall for that kind of scheme? But it happens daily to even the most educated people. So it does bear repeating that anytime anyone asks you for your information, whether it’s in a store or on the phone, first you verify the source. Yes, it is an inconvenience and can feel frustrating to take time out of your day to ensure the person calling you is, in fact, who they say they are. But verifying with a quick Google search can save you so much heartache.
What is the fail-safe rule of thumb? Don’t give your information over the phone to anyone without verifying first, ever.
Be vigilant in seemingly appropriate situations
A recent scam involves a credit card owner receiving a text message informing him that his card had been used for over $500 of video games. The text asked if he made that purchase, “yes” or “no.” When he responded “no,” he immediately received a phone call from his credit card company. The woman explained that she would help him to freeze his credit card and begin the process of ordering a new card. She asked him for his credit card number, his social security number, and his home address. He began to get a funny feeling and asked the woman to hold.
He used his office phone to dial the phone number on the back of his credit card. The credit card company representative on the office phone was quickly able to confirm that there was, in fact, no fraudulent activity on his credit card. The representative went on to say that no one from the credit card company would ever ask for his credit card number or social security number over the phone.
The moral of this story is that even when a situation seems to be appropriate for sharing your information, think twice. Double check. Anyone asking for your information can wait for you to do your research. If you feel pressured, consider it a red flag.
Check your credit report regularly
To ensure that only the companies you want having access to your information actually have it, check your credit report at least once a quarter. There are many online websites that offer free credit report checks, like www.FreeCreditReport.com . These sites can sometimes leave information off or be slightly inaccurate/out of date.
Other sites offer credit report checks at a low-cost, and often times these are more accurate. www.ScoreSense.com is a trusted source for ongoing credit report checking.
Many credit cards and banks offer regular access to your credit report, and even representatives to help you understand it. Check and see if this is available to you and, if it is, take full advantage! Many even offer alerts when something on your credit report changes.
If you think your identity is stolen…
With all the protection and vigilance in the world, it is still possible you could become a victim of identity fraud. If you fear that your social security number has been stolen, you can freeze access to your credit yourself by calling the three credit bureaus yourself. Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax are the three reporting credit agencies. You must call each one to freeze your credit and ensure that no one can open new credit cards or bank accounts without you.
If your driver’s license is stolen, immediately contact your local DMV and police department. Having an official police paper trail is very important in case more damage is done in the wake of whoever stole it.
Credit cards and debit cards are easier than ever to cancel just as soon as you realize they’re gone. Most credit cards offer fraud alert via texts and emails. Debit cards don’t typically offer alerts, which is why it’s always important to check your bank details regularly. Most banks and credit unions can help you recoup stolen money, but it’s important that you find the loss and report it quickly.
Identity theft is more prevalent than ever, but it’s also easier than ever to prevent and deal with if it happens to you.