When a thief uses a victim’s unique identifying information to commit fraud or other crimes in the victim’s name, it is commonly referred to as identity theft. The Federal Trade Commission
estimates that 9 million Americans are victims of identity theft each year. Identity thieves have varying motives, and they target all types of people—not only those with lots of money and good credit. Many victims of identity theft don’t realize they’ve been affected by this crime for months or even years after the fraud occurred. They find out when they’re suddenly being harassed by a collection agency or declined for a new line of credit. Being proactive about securing your information, online and off, is the best strategy for avoiding identity theft. Here are some critical steps to help protect yourself and your identity.
Don’t need it? Leave it at home. 44 percent of identity theft cases happen when a person’s wallet or purse is lost or stolen. Secure your identity by keeping your purse and wallet in a safe place and carrying only essentials when you go out. Leave credit cards you will not be using at home in a secure place. Unless it’s necessary, avoid carrying Social Security cards, birth certificates or passports as they contain sensitive personal information thieves could use to steal your identity.
Protect your sensitive documents. Never put checks, bill payments or financial information in your unlocked home mailbox. If you need to send out sensitive documents, don’t risk it…send them from the post office or a secure postal mailbox. Be sure to shred old bills and financial records that contain personal information. Set up automatic payments and go paperless. It’s 2016, and most if not all financial institutions offer some form of automatic bill payment – which allows your monthly bill payments to be withdrawn automatically from your checking or savings account. This helps combat identity theft by removing another paper source that contains your private information. Thieves will go through your trash looking for bills, bank statements, receipts and other documents. This method of stealing sensitive information is commonly referred to as “dumpster diving”.
Monitor your credit report regularly.
You are entitled to a free report every year from each of the three bureaus (Equifax
, and TransUnion
). Check your report once every 4 months using a different bureau each time and inquire about anything you see that you don’t recognize. Children can be victims of identity theft, too. The risk is even higher for foster kids and others whose records are in a public system. Since children do not usually use credit, it can take years to realize a child’s Social Security number has been stolen. Once your children approach their teen years, it is a good idea to check their credit reports. Most will have no credit record. If you do find an active credit record, review the items very carefully to ensure all of the information belongs to your child.
Beware of unsecured Wi-Fi. Free Wi-Fi may be convenient to do online banking at a cafe, but criminals have become increasingly skilled at intercepting unsecured Wi-Fi communications. Anyone on that same unsecured network could potentially access your sensitive personal information. Be sure that your home Wi-Fi network is password protected and wait until you get home or to another secured network to do any online banking, bill paying or shopping. Hackers can install malware, software that logs your keystrokes, and other malicious technology that allows them to steal your information without you ever noticing. You can help protect your home computer and mobile devices from these kinds of online attacks by installing anti-virus and firewall protection.
If you happen to fall victim to this crime, the U.S. government has put together a useful guide to recovering from identity theft. The guide is available at www.identitytheft.gov, and walks you through the actions to take, step by step, to secure your information, put a stop to fraudulent charges, and notify stores and credit card companies of the incident.