Prevent Identity Theft and Protect Your Credit
Identity thieves can clear 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. If they give your personal information to the police during an arrest and then don't show up for a court date, you may be subsequently arrested and jailed. You'll get the headache and expense of cleaning up the mess they leave behind.
Two types of identity theft:
- Account takeover-- A thief gains access to your credit or debit cards (even just the numbers/expiration date)
- Application fraud-- A thief uses your Social Security Number (along with other information about you) to obtain new credit in your name
Although you may never be able to completely prevent either type of identity theft, there are some things you can do to help protect yourself from becoming a victim.
Check your credit file
You must check your credit report periodically, to make sure that all the information contained in it is correct, and to be on the lookout for any fraudulent activity. As of September 2005, you may get your credit report for free once a year. To do so, contact the Annual Credit Report Request Service online at www.annualcreditreport.com or call (877) 322-8228.
If you need to correct any information or dispute any entries, contact the three national credit reporting agencies:
- Equifax: www.equifax.com 1-800-525-6285
- Experian: www.experian.com 1-888-397-3742
- TransUnion: www.transunion.com 1-800-680-7289
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 (for example, 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. Ask the three major credit reporting agencies to truncate it on your credit reports. Try to avoid listing it on employment applications; offer instead to provide it during a job interview.
Don't leave home with it
Do not carry everything with you. If you carry all of your credit cards, debit cards, and telephone cards with you, a thief will have access to all of your spending means and financial data if your wallet is stolen. So, 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, such as in a fire-proof safe.
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.
Save your receipts until you can check them against your monthly credit card and bank statements, and watch your statements for purchases you didn't make.
Shred Old Information/Statements
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. Shredders are quite inexpensive and you can get a good one at Walmart.
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:
- To stop telephone calls from national telemarketers, list your telephone number with the Federal Trade Commission's National Do Not Call Registry by calling (888) 382-1222 or registering online at www.donotcall.gov.
- To remove your name from commercial mailing lists visit www.dmachoice.org.
- To remove your name from other lists, including catalogs, magazines, pre-approved credit offers, flyers, and phone books, visit privacyrights.org for details (they also provide excellent information for other list removals)
- To remove your name from marketing lists prepared by the three national consumer reporting agencies, call (888) 567-8688 or register online at www.optoutprescreen.com.
- When given the opportunity to do so by your bank, investment firm, insurance company, and credit card companies, opt out of allowing them to share your financial information with other organizations. You may even want to consider having your name and address removed from the telephone book and reverse directories.
- Never provide any personal information via phone, letter, or e-mail unless you initiated the transaction. Legitimate businesses should already have your information on file, and will not call you or e-mail you for it.
Other Steps To Take
Install a firewall on your computer to prevent hackers from obtaining information from your hard drive or hijacking your computer to use it for committing other crimes. This is especially important if you use a high-speed connection that leaves you continuously connected to the Internet. Moreover, install virus protection software and update it on a regular basis.
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 6 to 8 characters long, and that contains letters (upper and lower case), numbers, and symbols.
Don't open e-mails from people you don't know. Do not download attached files or click on hyperlinks within the message. Doing so can expose you to viruses, infect your computer with "spyware" that captures information by recording your keystrokes, or lead you to "spoofs" (websites that replicate legitimate business sites) designed to trick you into revealing personal information that can be used to steal your identity.
And when it comes time to upgrade to a new computer, remove all your personal information from the old one before you dispose of it. Doing so by using the "delete" function isn't sufficient to do the job; overwrite the hard drive by using a "wipe" utility program. The minimal cost of investing in this software may save you from being wiped out later by an identity thief.