By now it shouldn’t be news to anyone that identity theft is on the rise. Between computer hackers, garbage scroungers, ATM skimmers, phishers and cell phone thieves, our identities are under constant assault. Some experts say that it is nearly impossible to absolutely prevent identity theft, but there are some key areas of vulnerability can be protected by taking some simple measures. The first step is to identify your areas of vulnerability and then take the essential steps to protect yourself from identity theft.
Essential Identity Theft Protection Measures
With identity theft happening all around us, we need to adopt a 360 approach to vigilance over our most valuable asset, our identity. The key is to minimize the opportunities for theft. These measures should be taken at a minimum:
Junk the junk: Stop all of the junk mail and offers, some of which may contain your personal information, by going to www.DMAchoice.org and setting your preferences. You can opt out of pre-approved credit card offers by calling 1-800-50PTOPTOUT.
Password security: You should vary your passwords for each of your important online accounts. Never write your passwords down. Instead, use a password tracking program such as LastPass.
Keep important numbers to yourself: Phishing is the process thieves use to get unsuspecting email users to hand over sensitive information. The emails look as if they come from a legitimate company such as a bank or your cell phone provider, but they are frauds. As a general rule, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to provide any sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers, account numbers, address or phone in response to an email.
Watch your kids: There are countless stories of eight, nine and ten year children with credit records containing many accounts with debts into the tens of thousands of dollars, and cleaning up their records is not easy.The only way to ensure that your child’s identity is not stolen is to keep his or her Social Security number under lock and key from the moment it is received. Never provide the number to any person other than a financial institution, a government agency or school authority. Never write it down and never provide it online. Online tax filers should be very careful about how their data is stored.
Invest in a shredder: While identity theft continues to go high tech, there are still identity thieves who are very successful using the “old-fashion” methods, such as scrounging through your garbage. The best defense against paper thieves is to go paperless as much as you can.
But, most people aren’t aware of just how many pieces of paper are floating around that contain sensitive personal information. Credit card receipts, bills, credit card applications, insurance statements, ID cards, expired credit cards, should all be shredded immediately. Other documents should be stored securely and then shredded according to a schedule, such as tax records (7 years), pay stubs (1 year), receipts and statements (1 month).
Don’t get skimmed: One of the fastest growing forms of identity theft is occurring at an ATM machine near you. Thieves have concocted various ways to skim your ATM card right from the machine. By attaching or inserting skimming technology right to the ATM, thieves can collect your card number, and in some cases, even your PIN. Especially if you are using a “foreign” ATM, be sure to double check that it doesn’t look like it has been tampered with.
Consider Using a Credit Monitoring Service
It is more important than ever that each of us become vigilant in monitoring our accounts. You should be using online account management services available through your bank and your credit cards to check your transactions regularly. While this will let you know if there is any fraudulent use of your credit cards, it won’t tell you is a thief has used your identity to open new accounts in your name. One of the only ways to uncover a fraudulent account is by reviewing your credit report, which you can order for free from each of the credit bureaus.
A better alternative for busy or forgetful people is to subscribe to a credit monitoring service. For a monthly fee of $9 to $20, depending on the frequency of reporting you want, a CMS will let you know when a new account has been opened, or whether any information on your credit report has changed. While a CMS can’t prevent identity theft, it can alert you much more quickly which can make a difference in containing the damage. AllClearID.com offers a basic monitoring service for free.