One of the fastest growing crimes in the United States, identity theft affects millions of Americans. From phishing scams to taking advantage of the information in a lost or stolen wallet, criminals have a variety of options when it comes to methods of exploiting your information for their own gain. Fortunately, there are also a few simple steps you can take to protect yourself against their nefarious efforts, maintaining control over your own identity and preventing it from being stolen.
1. Clean Out Your Wallet – Many people keep their Social Security cards on their person for easy access, but this practice can easily put one of your most sensitive pieces of personal information into the hands of identity thieves if your wallet is stolen or becomes lost. Make a point of storing your Social Security card in a safe place other than your wallet, and of periodically clearing out any bits of paper bearing sensitive information.
2. Come Up With Creative PIN Numbers – Choosing your wedding anniversary or the birth date of a child for account pin numbers makes them easy to remember, but it also makes them relatively easy for would-be identity thieves to guess. A jumble of numbers or letters that have no connection to one another is ideal, as the random nature makes them much more difficult to suss out.
3. Memorize PIN Numbers – The major selling point of using an important date or significant number as the PIN on a financial account is ease of memorization, but that also makes them easy to guess. When you do come up with a secure PIN, don’t write it down and leave the slip of paper in your wallet or on your person, as that information would fall into the hands of an identity thief right along with the card it’s attached to if your wallet is ever stolen. Take the time to memorize the number instead.
4. Check Your Mail – Letting your mail pile up while you’re on vacation or simply forgetful can leave you with more than just a clogged mailbox. It can also up the chances of documents containing sensitive information being taken by an unscrupulous passerby. Make sure that you’re clearing the mailbox every day, or that you make arrangements for the postal service to hold your mail while you’re traveling. (Editorial note: Alternatively, use a secure locking mailbox.)
5. Invest in a Document Shredder – Dropping sensitive documents into a shredder is the work of a moment, and it makes it much more difficult for criminals to steal discarded papers from your garbage can or recycling bin with sinister aims.
6. Monitor Account Activity – Opting out of paper statements from your bank and other financial institutions not only keeps your statement out of the mailbox, but also helps you to do your part for the environment by eliminating a bit of unnecessary paper use. Instead, check your statements and monitor activity online. You’ll be able to keep an eye on your account any time you like, and you won’t be leaving personal information on a statement that’s up for grabs to any thief in the area.
7. Check Your Credit Report Annually – By federal law, you are entitled to one free credit report each year. It’s wise to take advantage of that right, not only to keep an eye on your rating, but also to check for signs of old identity theft or fraudulent activity.
8. Install Anti-Virus Software – Your computer makes paperless billing and statements available, allows you to conduct transactions from the comfort of your home and is an indispensible tool for the modern American. Without proper anti-virus and security software, it’s also an open invitation for identity theft and fraud. Make sure that you’re running up-to-date and reliable software to protect your PC, too.
9. Be Cautious Online – Whether you’re looking for work online or applying for financing, there are a wide variety of helpful tools to be found on the Internet. Unfortunately, there can also be a minefield of potential issues for those who aren’t cautious in their online dealings. Make sure that you’re only sharing sensitive information with reputable sources.
10. Practice Smart Phone Strategies – Unless you initiated a phone call and are sure you’ve reached the intended party, it’s wise to make a practice of never providing personal information over the phone. This especially holds true with unsolicited sales or marketing calls, because you can’t always be sure that the person on the other end of the line is a legitimate representative. To be safe, decline any offers that would require the sharing of your social security number, financial account details or other sensitive information.