Identity thieves go after the personal information we and the institutions we deal with unknowingly leave unprotected, such as Social Security numbers, preapproved credit card offers, cancelled checks, credit card information, and health records. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, 17.7 million U.S. residents became victims of identity theft in 2016.
Identity thieves can get your personal information any number of ways—internet, email, telephone scams, or stealing wallets or mail. You may be liable for expenses they incur until you prove your identity has been stolen. Reinstating your good credit can take months or even years.
Thieves can easily steal personal information in any number of ways:
Once an identity thief has your personal information, he or she can apply for and use credit cards in your name to make purchases, open bank accounts, take out loans, and much more.
One of the best ways to guard against identity theft is to monitor your credit report.
All Americans are eligible for a free credit report once a year from each of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Order yours online at Annual Credit Report.com or by calling 877-322-8228.
Check your credit reports carefully for accounts or inquiries that you did not initiate. Some experts advise staggering your requests by ordering your free report from a different credit bureau every four months or so (rather than requesting the report from all three companies at once), which enables you to keep track of any changes or new information that may appear on your credit report. To keep a closer eye on your credit, you can hire a credit monitoring service, which will alert you to changes when they happen.
Here are some more suggestions for protecting yourself against identity theft:
Never leave a purse, wallet, cell phone, tablet, or computer in a car or public place. Stealing such items is one of the most common ways thieves get personal information. Also keep your wallet or purse in a safe place at work, such as a locked drawer.
Don’t carry more credit cards than you absolutely need. Leave rarely used cards at home.
Don’t open credit accounts that you don’t need. If you don’t really need the card, you may just be creating one more opportunity for identity thieves.
Keep a list of account and contact information for all of your credit cards, bank accounts, and investment accounts in a secure place. This will allow you to quickly and easily contact creditors or financial institutions in the case of fraud.
Don’t carry your Social Security number, birth certificate or passport with you. Keep these documents in a safe place until you actually need them. Also, don’t save your Social Security number and birth date on an electronic device that might be lost or stolen.
Guard your incoming and outgoing mail from theft. Shred or otherwise destroy any preapproved credit card offers you get in the mail. These could have enough information for someone to open a new card in your name and have it sent to a different address. Have a neighbor or the post office hold onto your mail when you are away. Avoid mailing private information, including personal checks, from an unlocked mailbox.
Be careful about giving personal information over the phone. Give personal information only to an organization that you know is legitimate or to an organization or person with whom you initiated contact. Phone scammers are getting more and more creative. If a seemingly legitimate company calls you and asks for personal information, ask if you can call back to make sure it is who it claims to be.
Protect your personal information online and on your electronic devices. Shop only on sites that use secure technology, which prevents unauthorized parties from seeing your purchase information. Most sites will notify you that they use secure technology when you reach the checkout page. Also, make sure your electronic devices are protected with passcodes, passwords, and other available technologies such as laptop fingerprint security.
Make sure that your virus protection software is up-to-date and scans for viruses regularly. Never download files sent to you by strangers. Identity thieves can use virus programs to access private data on your computer.
Be sure that you have a firewall on your home computer. A firewall can keep people from accessing your computer and stealing your personal information.
Be wary of email scams that ask you for personal information. These “phishing” emails appear to be from a trusted source, such as your bank or credit card company, and they often have the same look as emails from the companies that you do business with. They may direct you to a website and ask you to log on and enter your personal information.
Make sure that your credit card, bank, email, phone, and other online accounts are protected by passwords that cannot be easily guessed. Avoid using information that is easily available, such as your date of birth, your phone number, or your mother’s birth name, and don’t use the same password for multiple accounts. Consider using a secure password service for creating and keeping track of strong passwords. When possible, sign up for two-step verification, so when you sign on to your account, the company will send you a code via text, e-mail or phone call to verify it is you. You will then have to enter this code as prompted, in order to access your account online.
Reduce the amount of personal data available. Remove your name from the marketing lists of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). This will limit the number of preapproved credit offers you receive. Contact the credit bureaus directly with your requests, visit Opt Out Prescreen, or call 888-567-8688 to be taken off these lists. Also, be sure to read the fine print when you shop online or register to use websites. Many sites offer an “opt-out” feature that allows users to limit the amount of promotional mail or email the site can send.
Be cautious when using ATMs and phone cards. Make sure the ATM doesn’t look like it’s been tampered with and that no one is lurking near you. Also, never write your PIN on the back of your ATM card or store it in your wallet.
Properly store or dispose of canceled checks, bank or credit card statements, and other documents with your personal information. These should be shredded or ripped up if thrown out, and they should be stored in a safe place if kept.
Make sure your personal information is stored in a secure place in your home, especially if you live with roommates or are having services done in your home. Keep credit card statements and anything else with personal information in a locked file.
Keep track of all ATM and credit card receipts. Rip them up before throwing them away or keep them in a safe place at home.
Pay attention to your billing cycles for credit cards and other accounts. A missed bill might indicate that your mail has been diverted.
If a company or organization with your information on file has had a data breach, consider signing up for a service that protects against identify theft. After a theft of corporate data, the victimized company may offer you a protection service for free for a limited time. Sign up for the offer. When it expires, you can pay to continue the service or comparison shop among different services.
Requests for personal information have become commonplace. Retail stores may ask for your phone number, websites may require you to register, and many businesses and service providers ask for Social Security numbers. An employer or financial institution may legitimately require your Social Security number or other information, but you don’t normally have to give out your Social Security number to a business. Always ask why the information is needed.
Here are more resources for learning how to protect yourself from identity theft, as well as contact information for the three major credit bureaus if you need to report fraud.
Federal Trade Commission
877-IDTHEFT (877-438-4338) (identity theft hotline)
The FTC is the federal clearinghouse for complaints by victims of identity theft. The commission doesn’t bring criminal cases, but it does have a wealth of information about resolving financial and other problems connected to identity theft.
Social Security Administration
800-269-0271 (fraud hotline)
You should contact the Social Security Administration when your Social Security number is stolen or misused.
U.S. Department of Justice
The U.S. Department of Justice is one of the federal offices that prosecutes cases of identity theft. The department also has information about identity theft on its website.
Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion are the three national credit bureaus. Contact any one of these companies to report fraud; each company is required to contact the other two.
800-525-6285 (to report fraud)
888-397-3742 (to report fraud)
Fraud Victim Assistance Division
800-680-7289 (to report fraud)
Identity Theft Resource Center
This nonprofit organization has information and resources to help consumers protect against identity theft and deal with the aftermath of identity theft. On its website you’ll find informational articles, form letters, fraud and scam alerts, data breach reports, and more.