It's a lot easier to prevent identity theft than it is to clean up the mess once you've been made a victim. Developing a few simple habits will go a long way toward protecting yourself and making it difficult for criminals to get their hands on your personal information.
Treat your Social Security number like gold, and only give it out when it is absolutely necessary.
While your adherence to certain guidelines will help in protecting you against identity theft, it's important to realize that some things will continue to be out of your hands. The agencies, banks and other places of business that you deal with have your information on file and could be vulnerable to theft themselves, whether at the hands of employees from within or hackers from the outside. While you may only be able to ask about the security practices of these places of business, there are a few things you can do to safeguard your private information:
- Keep your Social Security card out of your wallet and in a safe place, such as a safety deposit box or home safe. Treat your Social Security number like gold, and only give it out when it is absolutely necessary.
- Guard your wallet and/or purse by keeping it close and safe. Criminals will sometimes overpower their victims in order to get to their wallets or purses, but most choose to do it discreetly so as not to draw attention to themselves. Rather than leaving your purse on the seat next to you, tuck it up against your body. Keeping credit cards and the like in a second zippered compartment within your purse can guard against thieves who would steal its contents by cutting a hole it its bottom or quickly rifling through it. Men can protect themselves by keeping their wallets in their front pockets, where pickpockets are much less likely to get to them.
- Photocopy your credit cards, driver's license, bank account numbers and any other important information that you usually carry with you. This way, if something were to happen, you would be able to tell exactly what items were stolen from you and would have the phone and account numbers necessary to file an accurate, detailed police report and stop your accounts immediately.
- Ordering new checks? Instead of having your home phone number printed on them, use your work number or no number at all. If you can, use a post office box number instead of your home address. You should never put you Social Security number on your checks. It's also a good idea to use only your initials and last name instead of having your first name printed on your checks. This way, if someone were to obtain your checkbook, they wouldn't know your gender or how you normally sign your checks.
- Make it a habit to acquire your credit reports annually and verify by checking them carefully that nothing suspicious has been reported. You can receive one free credit report from each of the main three credit bureaus for free each year at www.annualcreditreport.com.
- Avoid giving your full credit card number out whenever you can. When mailing in a check to your credit card company, write only the last four digits of your account number on your check.
- If anyone will be accessing your home while you're not there (a babysitter, for example), be sure to lock up all of your personal data to ensure that it stays safe despite your absence.
- Buy and use one of the new "cross-cut" shredders often. Anything you want to toss that has any identifying information on it (that includes envelopes) should be shredded. "Cross-cut" shredders shred into much smaller pieces than ordinary shredders do, making it virtually impossible for a criminal to glue or tape your shredded papers back together.
- Keep up-to-date firewalls, antivirus protection and anti-spyware programs on your computer. There are good free versions of these available, so not having enough money is no excuse not to have them.
- Don't be sucked in by "phishing" scams. These scams work by sending you an official looking email that asks you to click on a link (which takes you to an official looking site) and submit your personal information (usually for verification purposes). If you get one of these emails, delete it. Legitimate companies will never solicit personal information via email. If you think the email may be legitimate, call the company-using a phone number from one of your statements, not one supplied by the email-and ask.
- Prevent anyone from seeing your debit card number as you punch it in at the cash register. The same goes for calling card numbers at public telephones.
- If possible, use a post office box instead of your home mailbox. If you don't have or don't want a post office box, mail your bills from the post office or a drop box instead of from your home. If you're not home to collect your mail, ask a friend or neighbor to pick it up for you.
This is a long list, but most of these guidelines can be easily followed without a great deal of effort. Your privacy is priceless, and if your personal information is stolen, it can create all kinds of trouble for you immediately and, through the damage done to your credit report, far into the future. Don't make yourself an easy target for potential thieves.