Identity Theft: What You Need to Know to Protect Yourself

Identity theft has been in the news often over the past few years. So often, in fact, it is easy to think of it as a problem that only happens to other people. The unfortunate reality is identity theft continues to hurt thousands of Americans every year, ruining credit scores, jeopardizing careers and creating nightmares for victims trying to put their lives back on track.(source) Identity thieves try to steal information in many ways. Hacking, phishing or stealing smartphones, laptops and mail are all ways a thief can access your personal data.

Guard Your Personal Information
The first step to protecting yourself from becoming the next victim is guarding that personal information. Identity thieves can get virtually anyone’s address, birthdate and name easily. The thing that can harm you the most if it falls into the wrong hands is your Social Security number. Keep your Social Security card somewhere secure like a safe; do not carry it with you in your wallet or purse. Be extremely wary of any website that asks for your Social Security number. (source)

Protect Your Computer
Another way to protect yourself is to use protective computer software. There are many affordable firewalls, anti-virus and spyware-removal programs that can be invaluable for protecting your information, and your computer. When using the Internet, avoid clicking on pop-ups that promise anything for free or warn of a computer issue you need to click the balloon to resolve. Be on the lookout for suspicious e-mails that ask for personal information or promise free awards. (source)

Shred Away
Other simple ways to protect your information are to shred your documents (bills, health records, bank statements, etc.) before throwing them away. Get a lock for your mailbox, and put a hold on mail delivery from the Post Office if you will be out of town for a few days or more. Be mindful of what you say in public, especially when talking on a cell phone. Don’t make it easy on an eavesdropping thief by paying for something over the phone and giving out your credit card number. (source) Despite being cautious, many people still find themselves the victim of identity theft.

Watch for any of the following which indicate you may have been targeted:
· Receiving bills or statements for accounts you did not open
· Collection agencies contacting you about unknown accounts
· Strange accounts appear on your credit report
· Receiving mail or pre-approved credit offers with someone else’s name at your address (source)

Monitor Your Credit
Many other agencies like banks and health care providers have access to your credit information as well, making them targets for hackers. Since you can’t protect every piece of your personal information that’s out there, it is important to monitor your credit score. Experian, Transunion and Equifax will all provide you with one free credit report per year. You can also hire a credit monitoring service to alert you if there is any activity on your credit file. (source)

Act Quickly
If you suspect someone has used your identity, or if you lose something containing sensitive information such as your wallet, it is important to act quickly. The Fair Credit Reporting Act allows you to call credit reporting services and/or your creditors to place a fraud block on any accounts you have. This will let them know that someone has used your information and no further credit should be extended unless the institution is sure they are dealing with you alone. Call an attorney before disputing any of the fraudulent debts with creditors yourself. Collect all copies of your credit statement that have been sent to you or any agencies that have your information, such as mortgage brokers or car dealerships. (source)

Identity theft can be a scary subject, but knowing how to protect yourself will reduce your risk and give you some peace of mind. Safeguarding your personal data and staying on top of your credit report can help keep you safe and put identity thieves on the defensive, instead of the other way around.

Have you or someone you know ever been the victim of identity theft? Share your story below or post a comment with any tips you may have for additional ways to protect yourself or your personal information.

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