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What You Can Do to Prevent Identity Theft

As damaging as identity theft can be and as vulnerable as we are to identity theft, there are a number of relatively simple things that you can do to make yourself less likely to become a victim of identity theft:

  1. Do a little spring cleaning in your wallet or purse, even if it is the middle of the summer. Do you really need to carry all the cards and identifications that you presently carry?
  2. If you rent a car while on vacation, remember to destroy your copy of the rental agreement after you have returned the car. Don’t leave it in the glove compartment.
  3. Stolen mail is a ripe source of identity theft. When you are traveling, you might want to have a neighbor you trust pick up your mail every day or have your mail held at the post office until your return. Extremely careful people or extremely paranoid people, depending on your characterization of the same people, might prefer to use a post office box rather than a mailbox at home. Identity thieves also get your mail by filling out a “change of address” form using your name to divert your mail to them. If you find you are not receiving any mail for a couple of days, it is worth contacting your local postmaster to make sure everything is okay. A recent preventive measure instituted by the U.S. Postal Service requires post offices to send a “Move Validation Letter” to both the old and the new address whenever a change of address is filed. If you receive one of these notices and you have not changed your address, you should respond immediately because it could well be a warning that an identity thief has targeted you. A careful credit card holder keeps an eye on his or her mailbox for the arrival each month of his or her monthly statement from the credit card company. If a bill is missing, it might mean that someone has hijacked your account and filed a change of address form with the credit card issuer to buy some more time. The sooner you become aware that the security of your account has been compromised, the better off you will be. You should also be particularly watchful of the mail when your card is close to expiration. An identity thief might be in a position to steal your mail containing your new card. If an identity thief is armed with enough personal information to activate the card, you could be in trouble.
  4. Prudent people might want to use travelers’ checks while on vacation rather than taking their checkbook because an enterprising identity thief who manages to get your checkbook can access your checking account and drain it.
  5. Be wary of who might be around you when you use an ATM (automated teller machine). Someone might be looking over your shoulder as you input your PIN (personal identification number). That same someone might lift your wallet shortly thereafter. Next step—disaster.
  6. Make copies of all your credit cards, front and back, so that you can tell whether a card has been lost or stolen. Also keep a list of the customer service telephone numbers for each card. When copying your cards, you might want to consider whether you really need that many cards.
  7. Be careful when storing personal information and mail, even in your own home. Shreveport, Louisiana, police arrested a baby sitter on identity theft charges. They alleged that she stole a credit application mailed to the people for whom she was baby-sitting and also opened other accounts using the Social Security number of her employer that she had found while rummaging through their documents.
  8. After you have received a loan, a credit card, or anything else that required you to complete an application containing your Social Security number, request that your Social Security number be removed from the application kept on record. In addition, if you are feeling particularly paranoid, ask that your credit report used by the bank or other institution be shredded in your presence. They no longer need that information after you have received the loan.
  9. Make life easier for yourself. Remove yourself from the marketing lists for preapproved credit cards and other solicitations. You can remove yourself from the Direct Marketing Association’s solicitation list by writing to them at Mail Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale, NY 11735. Include your name and address, but no other personal information. You can also take yourself off of the list of preap-proved credit card offers for five years by going online to www.optoutprescreen.com. Register for the Direct Marketing Association’s Mail Preference Service to opt out of national mailing lists online at www.dmaconsumers.org, but there is a $5 charge for doing so if you do it online. You also can print out the form and get yourself removed from mailing lists at no cost. Additionally at the same Web site, you can also remove yourself from commercial email solicitations. When you go to www.dmaconsumers.org, go to the Consumer FAQs page, where you will find the links to remove yourself from these mailing lists. DMA members are required to remove people who have registered with the Mail Preference Service from their mailings. However, because the list is distributed only four times a year, it can take about three months from the time that your name has been entered to see a reduction in junk mail. It is also important to remember that many spammers are not members of the Direct Marketing Association, so you can still expect to get some spam emails and snail mail.
  10. If you do get unwanted spam e-mails, do not click on the “remove me” link provided by many spam e-mails. All you will succeed in doing is letting them know that you are an active address, and you will end up receiving even more unwanted e-mails.
  11. If you receive spam faxes, you also should be wary of contacting the telephone number to remove yourself from their lists. It is already illegal for you to have received the spam fax. Contacting the sender by its telephone removal number might cost you for the call and will not reduce your spam faxes.
  12. Sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry to reduce unwanted telemarketing calls. Most telemarketers are legitimate. Almost all are annoying, and many are criminals setting you up for identity theft. To sign up for the Do Not Call Registry, you may call toll free 888-382-1222 or register online at www.donotcall.gov.
  13. Check your credit report at least annually and remember to get copies from each of the three major credit report bureaus, all of which independently compile the information contained in their files. Federal law permits you to annually obtain a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. You can get your free credit reports by going to www.annualcreditreport.com or by calling 877-322-8228. It is important to note that there are a lot of companies that appear to be offering free credit reports, but if you read the fine print (and rarely will you find anything fine in fine print), you will see that often when you sign up for a “free” credit report, you have also signed up for a costly monthly service to follow. The only official Web site from which you can truly obtain your credit reports for free without any conditions is www.annualcreditreport.com. You also might want to consider staggering the obtaining of your credit reports by ordering one of your free credit reports from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies every four months so that the information you receive is more current. Look over your file and make sure everything is in order. Particularly look for unauthorized and inaccurate charges or accounts. Also, check out the section of your report that deals with inquiries. A large number of inquiries that you have not authorized could be the tracks of an identity thief trying to open accounts in your name. A large number of inquiries can also have the harmful effect of lowering your credit score.
  14. Check your Social Security statement as provided by the Social Security Administration annually. It provides an estimate of your Social Security benefits and your contributions and can be helpful in detecting fraud. It is also a good thing to check this statement carefully each year to make sure that the information contained within it is accurate to ensure that you are slated to receive all the Social Security benefits to which you are entitled.
  15. Don’t carry your Social Security card with you. You don’t need it with you at all times, and if your wallet or purse is lost or stolen, you have handed over the key to identity theft to a criminal.
  16. Carefully examine your monthly bank and credit card statements for any discrepancies. This can be particularly important in limiting liability for the use of a stolen debit card.
  17. Carefully examine all medical bills and statements for services that you receive to make sure that medical charges are not being made for services received by someone else using your medical insurance.
  18. Never give personal information on the phone to someone you have not called. You never can be sure of the identity of a telemarketer or anyone who solicits you on the phone.
  19. Protect your computer with a proper firewall and with security software that automatically is updated.
  20. Protect your smartphone or other portable electronic devices with security software and good passwords.
  21. Shred, shred, shred any documents that you intend to discard that have any personal information on them. Make sure you use a cross shredder because straight-shredded material can be reconstructed by identity thieves. Although the IRS has up to six years in which to audit your income tax return if they allege you underreported your income by at least 25%, you are probably safe shredding income tax returns and supporting records after three years, the normal period for the IRS to perform an audit. Credit card statements, canceled checks, and bank statements should be shredded after three years.
  22. When doing any financial transactions on your computer, laptop, or smartphone, make sure that your communications are encrypted. This is particularly important if you are using public Wi-Fi.
  23. Don’t share your passwords with anyone, and make sure you use complicated passwords that are not something easily identified with you, such as your pet’s name.
  24. Limit the information you share on social networking sites in order to make it more difficult for identity thieves to access your personal information that can be used to make you a victim of identity theft.
  25. I know it is boring, but read the privacy policies of any Web sites you go to on which you provide personal information. Make sure you know what they do with your personal information, whether they share it with anyone, and how they protect it. What you read might surprise you, and it might influence you to avoid that Web site.
  26. Not all of your personal information is on your computer and not all identity thieves come from Nigeria. Sometimes they are relatives, neighbors, or anyone else who might have access to your home and access to your personal records that might contain your Social Security number or other important information. Keep your personal and financial information documents locked and secure at home.
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