Identity theft–when someone steals your personal and financial information fraudulently–is one of the scariest and most financially crippling things that can happen to a person. An identity thief can not only steal your money, but also your sense of security and ability to obtain credit. This can significantly impact your life, making it difficult or impossible to be approved for a car loan or mortgage, leaving you with an insurmountable debt load, and forcing you to rebuild a credit score that you were not responsible for damaging in the first place.
While it is possible for victims of identity theft to recover from the damage done, it is obviously better to take steps prevent the theft from happening in the first place. Many of these practices are free and easy to implement in your day to day life. They include:
1) Keep your social security card at home, preferably in a locked container. Do not carry it with you in your wallet– if your wallet ever is lost or stolen with your social security card inside, a potential identity thief will have access to all the information they need to apply for credit cards, loans, or even a passport. Your social security card should only travel with you when you absolutely need it, and in those cases you should make every effort to keep it separate from other identifying documents and guard it at all times. Similarly, do not input your social security number on an unsecured website. You can tell if a website is secure by looking for a padlock symbol in the address bar of your internet browser.
2) Do not give out personal information in response to emails, phone calls, or letters that you did not specifically request, or to any source that seems suspect. Trusting your instincts can take you a long way here.
3) Be aware of your surroundings at ATMs and when typing passwords or personal information on computers. If you are ever concerned that you are being watched or that your internet connection is not secure, conduct your business at another location or wait until you are sure you are alone. Protecting your identity is worth a few minutes of your time.
4) Do not conduct transactions on unsecured networks. Secured networks are those that are private–paid for and controlled by you or someone you trust– and password protected.
5) Make sure your firewall and anti-virus software are up to date and functioning properly, and update your computer and online passwords regularly.
6) Monitor your credit and bank statements, checking for any irregularities. Often times this is enough to catch identity theft quickly before much damage is done. If you ever see an irregular transaction on any of your cards, cancel the card immediately and report the event to your bank or credit card company. Make sure your accounts have fraud protection– this will ensure you are not responsible for paying fraudulent charges.
7) Destroy financial documents and cancelled or expired credit and debit cards before recycling them. Ensure that there is no way to re-assemble the documents in a way that could give someone access to your private information.
8) Always collect your mail in a timely manner. If you are going out of town, ask a trusted friend or family member to collect your mail, or request that your local post office hold it for you until you return. If you are moving, ensure that mail forwarding will begin as close to your moving date as possible so there is less risk of documents arriving at the wrong address.
9) Lastly, if you are the victim of identity theft, report it immediately. It is possible to recover from a theft and secure your identity once again, but the difficulty involved only increases the longer the thief has access to your information.