Ten percent of the U.S. population is the victim of identity theft each year (Bureau of Justice Statistics), but you can take time now to protect your identity against thieves. That extra time is worth it when you consider what identity theft involves, such as having your credit compromised and your identity potentially used to complete transactions on the dark web.
While you want to keep your private information private, you have much more to worry about on a day to day basis. To prevent identity theft, you can easily integrate the following best practices into your daily and weekly routine, and for even more peace of mind, you can invest in an identity-theft-protection service for a low monthly fee.
Protecting your identity doesn't have to be difficult, especially with the following best practices.
Best Practices to Prevent Identity Theft
Identity theft protection services can only do so much to prevent a thief from acquiring your personal information. You have to be vigilant in protecting your information in every format, whether as paper documents or as electronic files stored on your computer. The following tips can help you prevent identity theft.
Shred Junk Mail
Don't just throw out your junk mail, receipts, and documents. It's important to remove your name, account numbers, address, and other identifying information. You never know who might get their hands on what you recycle or throw out, so stick to the best practice of shredding junk mail, old credit and debit cards, checks, prescription labels, receipts, forms, bank statements, or other documents that include personal information. You might think that your paper documents are safe from thieves in this world of electronic transactions, but thieves are still dumpster diving for personal information. Don't make yourself an easy target.
Opt Out of Unsolicited Offers of Credit
Prescreened credit offers, also called pre-approved offers, put you at risk of identity theft, especially if you have a typical, unsecured roadside mailbox. A thief can intercept your prescreened offer and use that new line of credit before you realize the account exists. The easiest way to stop this kind of fraud is to opt out of any unsolicited offers of credit.
The three credit reporting bureaus created a centralized service to handle opt outs and opt ins for credit or insurance offers. When you opt out, you prevent the credit reporting companies from sharing your financial data with companies that provide firm offers of credit or insurance. The website OptOutPrescreen.com gives you the option to opt out of firm offers for five years or opt out permanently, though if you move, you will need to resubmit the form for your new address as well.
Protect Your Documents, Wallet or Purse
Don't leave your wallet or purse unsupervised in public. It only takes a moment for someone to steal an ID or credit card. At home, place your wallet or purse in a private, safe location, and at work, lock your wallet or purse in your desk or other secured place. Keep your important documents in a secured location, such as a lockbox. Make sure that your documents, wallet, or purse are put away when you invite others into your home, especially workers or other strangers.
Don't Carry Everything
When you leave the house, do not bring your social security card unless it is necessary. Only carry credit cards, debit cards, insurance cards, etc. that you will need on that outing. The more you bring, the more you have to keep up with.
Ask Before You Share
Hospitals and businesses sometimes use forms that ask for your social security number when it isn't required. Before you give anyone your or your child's social security number or other private information, ask these questions:
- Why do they need it,
- How will they use it,
- How will they protect your information, and
- What are the consequences of opting not to share.
Use your discretion, and do not provide your or your child's social security number or private information if you do not feel comfortable with the organization or their answers to the above questions.
Avoid Public Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi is available in many public places, including coffee shops, restaurants, hotels, libraries, and airports. But before you jump onto the public wi-fi, consider that your information is not encrypted, which means that it is not protected. If you use a website that is encrypted, then the information that you send and receive on that website is encrypted, but away from encrypted websites, your information is exposed to any thieves peeping on the public network.
For added protection, stick to secure wireless networks that require a password to log on. Secure networks protect all the information that is sent and received on that network, not only for specific websites.
Use Strong, Unique Passwords
A strong password will include a combination of numbers, uppercase and lowercase letters, and special characters. Even the strongest password loses its ability to protect you if you use in for all of your secured accounts. That's why it's important to use a unique, strong password for every website where you enter personal information, especially for your bank account, credit card accounts, and laptop lock feature.
Use a Password Vault
If you follow the previous tip and use strong, unique passwords, now you have to remember all of them. You can use a password vault, also known as a password manager, to remember your passwords and to generate unique, extra strong passwords and enter them into login fields with the click of a button. A password manager is a program that stores all of your passwords in an encrypted database under one master, super-strong password. With a password vault, you only have to remember one password instead of dozens.
Don't Open Emails from People You Don't Know
The most common type of email scam is phishing: a fake email designed to convince you to offer your personal information. These emails often look like legitimate emails from respected companies, such as the U.S. Postal Service, your bank, or other financial institutions, that ask you to change your password through their link or send them other personal information. Interacting with fake emails can open up your device and your entire internet network to malicious code that could install malware. Instead,
- Do not respond to an unknown or questionable email sender.
- Do not click links embedded in a questionable email.
- Do not open email attachments from an unknown source.
Clean Your Old Devices Before Disposing
When it comes time to sell or recycle your old electronic, make sure that the system is cleaned of any personal information. Check the users' manual for your electronics to learn how to permanently delete information. For old computers, overwrite the hard drive to set it back to the factory default. For mobile devices, remove your SIM card and physically delete all of your photos, contacts, memos, apps, browser history, and cookies.
Review Your Credit Report
You can get a free credit report every twelve months from each of the three companies that report credit in the United States: TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. Your credit report includes personal information, such as current and former addresses, names, employers, accounts, and each account's financial standing (e.g., current, never late; or 100 days past due; etc.).
It's important to review the information on your credit reports to check for mistakes and to identify any potential cases of identity theft. If you do find incorrect information on your report, you can open a dispute with the company that prepared the credit report to resolve the issue.
Place a Security Freeze on Your Credit
A security freeze, also known as a credit freeze, blocks access to your credit report. Access to your credit report is typically required to open new accounts in your name. When you need to open an account, you temporarily lift the credit freeze and then replace it when the account is established. When your credit is frozen, you can still access your credit report and so can debt collectors, creditors for existing accounts, and some government agencies. The freeze can protect your identity, because thieves are prevented from charging your existing accounts, and they are limited in the types of new accounts they can open. For example, a security freeze will protect you from thieves making big purchases, but some smaller creditors (such as payday lenders) don't check your credit report.
To freeze your credit, you must go through the three credit bureaus: Experian, EquiFax, and TransUnion. It is free to place or lift a security freeze on your credit report.
Use Two-Factor Authentication
Many sites require two-factor authentication, and on the ones that don't require it, you can activate this feature. With two-factor authentication, you must prove your identity through two methods. For example, when you log in to a website using your username and password, the website will also require you to enter a code that is texted to your phone. Two-factor authentication adds another level of protection to your online accounts.
Be Careful of What You Share on Social Media
Oversharing your personal information on social media could leave you open to identity theft. Don't share your full name, full address, email address, phone number, date of birth, mother's maiden name, or any financial information on social media. Never post your social security number or other form of identification numbers anywhere online. The more you share, the more information thieves can gather about you to answer challenge questions for resetting your passwords or for gaining access into your private accounts.
Keep Social Media and Other Online Profiles Private
Consider making your social media accounts, portfolios, networking sites, and other online profiles set to private. If your accounts remain public, then anyone can view your information. When you change your accounts to private, you limit the people who can access your information and helps ensure that only trust-worthy individuals can view your personal information.
Opt Out of Personal Background Check Services
A personal background check is a report of all public and private information a background-check company can find on you. Depending on the type of report, the information might include records of your criminal, court, and licensing activity; financial information, including tax liens and bankruptcies; education; and co-signers for any past accounts.
Background check services fall into two categories: for personal reasons and for business or employment reasons. Background checks for business or employment reasons must abide by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which requires that the service provider be accredited by the National Association of Professional Background Screeners. Background checks for personal reasons are not regulated by any organization and are not required to follow the same laws as employment background checks; therefore, personal background check services leave you open to identity theft.
Don't Use Shared or Public Computers
Avoid using shared or public computers, such as those provided at libraries, universities, and internet cafes. You may think that quickly checking your email won't be an issue on a shared or public computer, but that's often enough for an identity thief.
Public computers are at risk because of the unknown factors, such as: does the computer use a legitimate, secured internet connection; could the computer potentially have malware (specifically spyware) installed on the computer to log your activity; and are there cameras or people near enough to the computer to watch your activity over your shoulder and, therefore, gain access to your information. It isn't worth the risk to use a shared or public computer.
Lock Your Computer
Make sure that your computer and other devices are protected with a unique password. This is especially important if you keep any financial or personal information stored on your device and if any websites you frequent remember your password. For example, if you set up your device to remember your email password through your browser or an app, then thieves only have to gain access to your email to get personal information and to know about your financial accounts.
Forward Your Mail When You Move to a New Address
When you move to a new address, you don't want the new homeowner or tenant to receive your private mail. Before you make the move, start a list of the companies and organizations that send you physical mail. Email, call, or use each company's online portals to change your address. File a Change of Address with the United States Post Office. If you know about the move in advance, file the change with the post office one to two weeks before you move, since it takes 7-10 days for the change to take effect.
Cover Up Your PIN When Making Purchases
The four-digit pin you enter when you make purchases is a security measure designed to protect you and your financial account. If you expose your pin to anyone (or any camera) nosey enough to look, then your financial information could be compromised.
Use Antivirus Security Software
Antivirus software monitors your computer, downloads, and apps for suspicious or malicious software activity. The software reports the suspicious or malicious activity to you and then removes it. Modern antivirus software detects and removes spyware, so a separate anti-spyware is not necessary.
Use Private Browsing
To block advertisers from snooping on you online and building a personal profile on you, then use private browsing (a feature available on all internet browsers). The private feature deletes cookies, your browsing history, and temporary files once you close out of the internet.
Use a Secure VPN
Similar to private browsing, a VPN (virtual private network) can block online advertisers from collecting information about you and building a personal profile about your interests. A VPN creates a tunnel between your device and the website, encrypting your information. If you ever need to work using a public Wi-Fi, a secure VPN can become your best friend. A VPN secures your computer even when the internet connection is not secure.
Set Up a Personal Google Alert
You can set up a Google Alert for your name to find out what is being posted about you on the internet. You can set up an alert here.
Close Unused Accounts
Close any accounts that you no longer use. Old, unused accounts can leave you open to a security breach and to hackers gaining access to your personal data. Think back to your earliest online accounts (old bank accounts, AOL, Myspace, etc.), and contact the managing organizations to ensure that your account and any related data is deleted.
Pay Your Bills Online
When you mail in bills, you can leave yourself exposed to identity theft. Only mail your check or credit card information if you are using a secured mail box or if you drop the mail off at the post office. Thieves don't have a chance to intercept your payment if you pay online. When you pay through your online banking portal or through the company's secured website, you also have an electronic record of which businesses or individuals you paid and when.
Purchase Identity Theft Protection
Following the best practices will help protect you from minor threats to your identity. But when protecting your personal information, you want to stop a thief before they gain access to your information, not discover the theft after the fact. Protecting your identity from theft is an important element of your personal security. Luckily, there are companies that specialize in identity theft prevention so that you don't have to worry. You can go about your life and know that you're covered.
Below, we'll outline some of the more common services offered by packages designed to protect you from identity theft. Several companies offer low-cost options to get started, though the initial cost is an investment in your peace of mind and your privacy.
Credit Report Monitoring
The identity-theft-protection company will monitor your credit reports from one, two, or all three credit monitoring companies. You will receive alerts if the company finds suspicious activity or when a new account is opened. Monitoring is carried out by state-of-the-art AI, and it serves as an important tool to let you know if your private information has been potentially compromised.
Dark Web Monitoring
Some threats to your identity can't be found through monitoring your credit report alone, and that's why many companies offer dark web monitoring. These companies monitor the dark web for mentions of your personal information. Your social security number, financial account numbers, credit card numbers, insurance information, and even your drivers license number can all be sold over the dark web without your knowledge. Identity theft companies use technology to detect your personal information in dark-web chat rooms, marketplaces, and secret forums.
Social Media Monitoring
Social media monitoring is less common than monitoring for credit reports and the dark web. Social media monitoring watches your Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and Google+ accounts for signs that your account has been hacked. You are alerted if your social media activity becomes inappropriate, violent, profane, or discriminatory.
Reports and Statistics
Some of the more common types of reports included with identity theft protection include social reports and sex offender registry reports. For a social report, the company runs an analysis on your activity on one or more social media platforms to asses your online image and then the report suggests ways to improve your online image. This is especially important if you are changing employers, since social media searches are a common component of the new-hire process. Reports on sex offender registry let you know if your name or other personal information shows up on in a registry of sexual offenders.
Alerts Related to Your Identity
The alerts you receive from an identity theft protection company depends upon the protection package you choose. Common alerts include
- Alerts based on the use of your social security number and credit,
- Alerts based on activity in your existing financial accounts,
- Alerts when anyone inquires about your credit report,
- Alerts if a new application is filed with your information for a payday loan, a savings account, a checking account, or a credit card, and
- Alerts on potential threats, including malware vulnerabilities, phishing scams, and security breaches.
Reimbursement of Stolen Funds
One of the most valuable reasons to get identity theft protection is the reimbursement of stolen funds. Depending on the amount of coverage you choose, identity theft protection can provide a reimbursement of stolen funds up to a certain amount (for example, up to $25,000 or up to $1 million), payment for lawyers and other experts up to a certain amount, and compensation for personal expenses due to an identity theft. In this way, identity theft protection can serve as a form of insurance.