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10 Ways to Help Prevent Identity Theft
Identity Theft has been called "the fastest growing crime in America" affecting millions of Americans each year. Nearly 10 million people fall victim to identity theft yearly, costing consumers an estimated $5 billion in out-of-pocket losses and businesses $48 billion, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
What steps can you take to protect yourself against identity theft?
While there is no fool-proof way to protect yourself 100% against identity theft, there are so important steps you can take, and habits you can practice to improve your chances of being safe from identity theft:
- Protect your social security number and drivers license number. Avoid carrying your social security card in your wallet or purse. If your health plan or any other card uses your social security number as an identifying number, request that this be changed. Don't put your social security number or drivers license number on your checks.
- Be careful about what you say on the phone. Another popular tactic of identity thieves is to listen in on your conversations. If you must order a product or service over the phone, make sure you are in a secure and private location to avoid the chances that you will be overheard.
- Don't give out your personal information. Scam artists constantly devise ways to capture personal information from victims. Pretending to be a bank, department store, government agency, or other "official entity" they may call you, email you, or send you unsolicited mail hoping you fall for the scheme. Never respond to a request to verify your social security number, account information, or password. The bottom line: Don't give out your personal information unless YOU initiated the contact.
- Don't throw away your identity! One of the easiest ways for identity thieves to steal your identity is to go through your garbage. Shred up or tear up thoroughly your papers and personal information before you throw them away. Pre-approved credit card offers, convenience checks, and any other personal information should also be destroyed.
- Protect your computer against viruses and spies. Don't allow the personal information on your computer to be readily accessible to thieves. Use strong passwords with at least 8-10 characters, including a combination of numbers, and letters, or symbols. Use firewall, virus and sypware protection that is updated regularly. Download free software only from those sites that you know and trust. Set your browser security level to at least "medium." Steer clear of links in pop up windows or in spam email.
- Be a smart and careful online shopper. The internet offers a convenient way for visitors to shop and buy online. However, you should be familiar with and trust the website you are visiting before entering your credit card number or any other personal information. Only enter personal info on secure sites that feature full encryption for protection. Look for a "padlock" symbol at the bottom of your browser window to indicate that the information provided will be "scrambled" to help ensure the safe arrival of your digital information.
- Check all of your bills and bank statements carefully! Open your bank statements and credit card bills as soon as they arrive. Check very carefully for any unauthorized charges or withdrawals and report them immediately. If you notice that a bill doesn't arrive on time, follow up with the company quickly, because a late bill may mean someone has broken into your account and changed the contact information to hide charges that are fraudulent.
- You can stop pre-approved credit card offers. Pre-approved credit card offers are very tempting to identity thieves who may search through your mail. You can stop the majority of these pre-approved offers by requesting that your name be removed from marketing lists. The number to call is 888-5OPTOUT, or 888-567-8688.
- Be Identity Theft Aware! When someone asks for your personal information, ask why it is needed, how it will be used, and whether it will be shared. Another important question is how it will be protected. Responsible companies will be happy to provide you with this information. If you aren't comfortable with the response, you should consider working with an alternative company.
- Monitor your credit reports on a regular basis. One of the most important things you can do to give yourself a "first line of defense" against identity theft is to check your credit reports from all three credit bureaus on a regular basis. You can do this for free once per year through www.annualcreditreport.com, or you may order your 3-in-1 credit report that features a side-by-side comparison of all three of your credit reports. If someone has used your name to apply for credit, the "credit inquiry" should appear on one or more of your credit reports. If someone has opened up an account in your name, this should also appear on one of your reports, and if you discover that you have been victimized by identity theft, you should report it immediately. . When you review your credit report, look carefully for any item that you don't recognize, or any discrepancy that appears. Check these out very carefully because they may be a sign that you have already been victimized by identity theft!