Whether they’re snatching your purse, stealing your mail or hacking your computer, identity thieves are out to get you.
Identity thieves can empty your bank account, max out your credit cards, open new accounts in your name and purchase furniture, cars and even homes on the basis of your credit history.
You may never be able to completely prevent your identity from being stolen, but there are steps you can take to help protect yourself.
Check Your Credit
It’s important to review your credit report periodically. Check to make sure all the information contained in it is correct, and be on the lookout for any fraudulent activity.
You may get your credit report for free once a year. To do so, contact the Annual Credit Report Request Service online at annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228.
Secure Your Number
Your most important personal identifier is your Social Security number (SSN). Guard it carefully.
Never carry your Social Security card with you unless you’ll need it. The same goes for other forms of identification such as health insurance cards that display your SSN. If your state uses your SSN as your driver’s license number, request an alternate number.
Don’t have your SSN preprinted on your checks and don’t let merchants write it on your checks. Don’t give it out over the phone unless you initiate the call to an organization you trust.
Do Leave Home Without it
Most of us carry our checkbooks and credit and debit cards with us all the time. That’s a bad idea; if your wallet or purse is stolen, the thief will have a treasure chest of new toys to enjoy.
Carry only the cards and/or checks you’ll need for any one trip. And keep a written record of all your account numbers, credit card expiration dates and the telephone numbers of the customer service and fraud departments in a secure place at home.
Keep Your Receipts
When you make a purchase with a credit or debit card, you’re given a receipt.
Don’t throw it away or leave it behind; it may contain your credit or debit card number. And don’t leave it in the shopping bag inside your car while you continue shopping; if your car is broken into and the item you bought is stolen, your identity may be, as well.
Before you throw out any financial records such as credit or debit card receipts and statements, cancelled checks or even offers for credit you receive in the mail, shred the documents, preferably with a cross-cut shredder.
If you don’t, you may find a panhandler going through your dumpster was looking for more than discarded leftovers.
Keep a Low Profile
The more your personal information is available to others, the more likely you are to be victimized by identity theft.
While you don’t need to become a hermit in a cave, there are steps you can take to help minimize your exposure:
-Stop telephone calls from telemarketers by listing your telephone number with the Federal Trade Commission’s National Do Not Call Registry by calling 888-382-1222 or visit donotcall.gov.
-Remove your name from most national mailing and emailing lists by registering with the Direct Marketing Association at dmachoice.org.
-Take your name off marketing lists prepared by the three national consumer reporting agencies by calling 888-567-8688 or visiting optoutprescreen.com.
-When given the opportunity by your bank, investment firm, insurance company and credit card companies, opt out of allowing them to share your financial information with other organizations.
Take a Byte Out of Crime
Whatever else you may want your computer to do, you don’t want it to inadvertently reveal your personal information to others. Take steps to help assure that this won’t happen.
Install a firewall to prevent hackers from obtaining information from your hard drive or hijacking your computer to use it for committing other crimes.
Try to avoid storing personal and financial information on a laptop; if it’s stolen, the thief may obtain more than your computer. If you must store such information on your laptop, make things as difficult as possible for a thief by protecting these files with a strong password — one that’s six to eight characters long, contains letters (uppercase and lowercase), numbers and symbols.
Opening emails from people you don’t know, especially if you download attached files or click on hyperlinks within the message, can expose you to viruses, infect your computer with “spyware” that captures information by recording your keystrokes or lead you to websites that replicate legitimate business sites designed to trick you into revealing personal information.
If you wish to visit a business’s legitimate website, use your stored bookmark or type the URL address directly into the browser. If you provide personal or financial information about yourself over the Internet, do so only at secure websites; to determine if a site is secure, look for a URL that begins with “https” (instead of “http”) or a lock icon on the browser’s status bar.
As the grizzled duty sergeant used to say on a televised police drama, “Be careful out there.” The identity you save may be your own.
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