In 2017, roughly 16.7 million people were affected by identity theft, totaling at nearly $16.8 billion stolen. Many seemingly harmless behaviors can make you vulnerable to identify theft: making purchases over the phone, recycling old bills or logging onto free WiFi. And simply losing your wallet or digital devices can be a golden opportunity for identity thieves. These simple steps may help you protect your identity when you’re at home or on the road:
Shred identifying papers
When it comes to identity thieves, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Some criminals will wade through garbage at dump sites or before weekly trash pickups, looking for billing statements with telltale account numbers. Many identity thieves gain the information they want simply by going through their victims’ trash. Use a cross-cut shredder to destroy any printed account statements, receipts or promotional credit offers before you throw them away. Resist the temptation to simply toss all your mail into the recycling bin.
Review your credit report regularly
In addition to reviewing your monthly account statements promptly, take the time to order a free credit report each year from each of the three credit reporting agencies. You don’t have to order them all at once. Consider ordering your free report from Equifax one month, Experian four months later and TransUnion four months after that to get a better view of your credit activity throughout the year.You also have the option of signing up for a credit monitoring service. Either way, comparing information from report to report should help give you a full picture of your credit, and over time you will easily spot errors.
When you review these reports, verify your personal information. Start with your name, birth date, Social Security number and address. Misspellings and typos can be fairly common, especially if you have a family member with a similar name, but if the data is wildly off, it may be an indication that someone has tapped your credit using fraudulent information. Mistakes and red flags should be reported by contacting each agency directly.
Confirm accounts associated with your name
Your credit report contains a listing of every credit card and loan you have ever had. Comb through every account, flagging anything suspicious or out of character. If you see an account you don’t recall creating, and can’t find supporting documentation for, contact the credit agencies to let them know. You should be familiar with your reports, and they should reflect your past. There’s a chance that anything out of the ordinary wasn’t done by you. Keep track of cards that have been closed or dormant for years, and those with a history of late payments or delinquencies. If you’re meticulous about paying your bills, but your credit report shows you getting dinged for being late on payments, that’s a red flag.
Follow up on credit inquiries
Read your credit reports on a regular basis and you will find that most of the new activity will be inquiries from lenders trying to check your credit. You initiate these inquiries when you apply for a new card or loan, or even when you apply for a new job. Keep track of the inquiries you make. Any that did not originate from an action you took can be a clear sign of fraud.
Use protection and encryption tools on your computer and digital data
In addition to installing a firewall on your personal computer network, make sure to password-protect your wireless service at home—and don’t transmit personal information over open wireless networks like those at most restaurants and hotels. Also, take the simple step of password-protecting your computer and smartphone, screensaver and any files that contain personal or financial data.
Stay aware of your surroundings
At the ATM or checkout counter, block the keypad from view with your hand or body. Take your receipt when you leave. Also, be careful not to throw away receipts or identifying documents in view of others. And be cautious about giving your account number or password to anyone over the phone, especially if you are where others can hear you.
Keep information from scammers
Online scam artists go fishing for money on the Internet by sending official-looking emails that appear to be from a large banking institution. The messages ask the recipient to click on a link and re-enter personal data in order to verify accounts. A similar scam involves phone calls in which someone pretends to be a representative of a bank or government institution – and, of course, they need your Social Security number or bank account numbers. Never share your information unless you are the one who contacted a bank or institution.
Only use social media for socializing
Thoroughly investigate any friends’ appeals for “emergency funds” through Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites. More often than not, those messages are the work of hackers.
Visit the post office
Whenever you send bill payments or checks through the mail, bring it to a postal facility or drop it directly in a blue United States Postal Service mailbox. This will prevent identity thieves from seeing personal information on outgoing bill payment stubs – or chemically stripping checks of their ink and instead making your payments out to their own names. If your mail ever is stolen, U.S. Postal Inspector Public Information Officer Peter R. Rendina suggests reporting the crime online at uspis.gov.
Protect your medical identity
Medical identity theft involves stealing medical and financial information, which is then used to illegally obtain or pay for health care treatments, buy prescription drugs or submit false insurance claims in your name. Medical identity theft can have a serious impact on your personal, financial and medical well-being. Identity theft could even impact the treatments you receive, if erroneous information winds up in your records as a result. In some cases, false medical records can result in a patient being denied or losing coverage.
Carry only the identification you need. Keeping all of your ID cards on you just makes it all that easier for thieves to steal your identify if your wallet or pocketbook is lost or stolen. You can also remove your social security number from your health insurance card. Your health insurance company will give you a new participant number upon request.
Remember to always review your records. Request to see your medical records periodically, and verify that they are correct.
Consider ID Theft Coverage on your Homeowners Insurance
That’s right. If you do become the victim of identity theft, some homeowners policies can help you recover your information and protect yourself from further damage. Find out how Identity Theft Coverage works.
Next steps to take
If you have been the victim of identity theft, file a police report then download and fill out a copy of the Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft Victims’ Complaint and Affidavit (PDF). Send copies to your credit card companies and the credit bureaus to alert them to the problem and to make sure you’re on track to getting your identity back.
You can also place an alert on your credit report at any of the three credit monitoring agencies. This will help creditors accurately verify the identification of anyone trying to open a new line of credit in your name. You can even leave a phone number and have them call you directly. If one agency finds fraud, it will report it to the others.
The initial fraud alert lasts 90 days. Those who have had their identities stolen can place an extended seven-year alert that requires a personal phone call to you before any credit is offered in your name. Or you could freeze access to your credit report so creditors can’t even check it. This should stop new accounts from being opened, but it’s still important to keep your eye on existing credit accounts, which can be just as vulnerable.