The Ultimate Guide to Identity Theft Prevention

In the last year alone, nearly 10 million Americans became victims of identity theft, a crime that cost them approximately $5 billion total. It is the fastest growing crime in the United States, and if you're not careful, it could happen to you, or perhaps it already has. On average, it takes identity theft victims 12 months [PDF] to realize that they have been victimized.

Personal Information

So what are the best ways to prevent identity theft? Firstly, you must understand what personal information of yours should be kept private. While some personal information is inevitably going to be made public, there are some items with high sensitivity that should never be made public. See the table below for details.

Item Sensitivity
Full Name Low
Address Low
Phone Number Low
Date of Birth Medium
Birthplace Medium
Mother's Maiden Name Medium
Social Security Number High
Bank Account Number High
Credit Card Number High
PIN or Password High

Protecting yourself against identity theft involves nothing more than protecting this personal information, particularly the high sensitivity items. Anyone with knowledge of just one of your high sensitivity items can do a lot of damage. Part of the battle of preventing identity theft is recognizing how this personal information is stolen and from where.

Where Your Identity Is Stolen From

Your Mail

The Federal Trade Commission has reported that in the last year, almost 400,000 Americans suffered identity theft due to stolen mail. Almost all of these incidences could have been avoided. When dealing with your mail, be careful. It can contain a lot of sensitive personal information. Here are some tips for ensuring your mail doesn't fall into the wrong hands.

  • Don't leave outgoing mail in an unsecured location. Deposit mail in USPS collection boxes.
  • Don't leave mail in your mailbox overnight or on weekends.
  • Have your mail held at the post office while you're out of town.
  • Get a mailbox that locks.

Your Computer

online shoppingMost casual PC users are unaware of how dangerous the Internet can be. Without the proper knowledge and protection, you could be just a few simple keystrokes and clicks away from having your identity stolen. Here are some tips for preventing online identity theft.

  • Use anti-spyware and anti-virus software.
  • Be wary of online shopping sites. Only shop at sites that you trust and are secure. See FTC - Online Shopping for more information.
  • Don't get baited by phishers.
  • Encrypt your wireless internet connection.
  • Erase your hard drive if you ever sell or give away your computer.

Your Trash

One man's trash is another man's treasure. Nothing could be closer to the truth when it comes to discarding personal documents. If it has your social security, bank account, credit card, or any other identifying number on it, remember to shred it before you trash it. And don't skimp out on your shredder. Get a good crosscut shredder. We recommend the Royal 7-Sheet Crosscut Paper Shredder. Once you have your shredder, here is a list of items you should always shred when it comes time to discard them.

  • Bank statements.
  • Credit card statements.
  • Pre-approved credit card offers. (Read this to see why.)
  • ATM receipts.
  • Canceled or voided checks.
  • Expired passports, visas, and credit cards.
  • Tax forms.
  • Bills.
  • Paystubs.

Safeguarding Your Personal Information

Keeping your personal information from falling into the wrong hands will help you from becoming another identity theft victim.

Immediately report lost or stolen credit cards and debit cards.
As soon as you discover that one of your credit cards or debit cards is missing, contact the issuing bank immediately, even if you think you may find it in a day or two. It's always better to be safe than sorry. Most banks will immediately cancel your missing card and reimburse you for any fraudulent charges. In most cases, you'll receive a new card in the mail within a week.

Don't keep your social security card in your wallet.
Sadly, this is a very common mistake. It may be convenient to keep your social security card in your wallet. That is, until your wallet is lost or stolen, in which case the thief now has everything he needs to steal your identity — name and address from your driver's license, credit cards and debit cards, and social security number. Instead of carrying your social security card in your wallet, keep it in a safe place at home.

Never provide your personal information to anyone who contacts you through a phone solicitation.
It is easy for any con artist to pretend he is a legitimate business over the phone. So always think twice before providing your credit card over the phone. If you do provide your credit card number over the phone, be certain that you were the one initiating the call. Better yet, opt out of these telemarketing calls entirely. Get your phone number listed in the National Do Not Call Registry.

Check your bills and bank statements as soon as they arrive.
Or if you have online access to your accounts, check them regularly. Be on the lookout for any fraudulent charges. If you notice something suspicious, contact your bank immediately.

Opt out of pre-approved offers.
Call 1-888-5OPT-OUT or visit OptOutPrescreen.com to remove your name from pre-approved credit or insurance mailing lists. You will then receive a form in the mail that you will have to sign and return. You can indicate whether you would like your name taken off the list for five years or permanently. Visit the FTC page on Prescreened Offers of Credit and Insurance for more information.

Check your credit reports for free.
Under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003, you are entitled to receive one free credit report from the big three credit bureaus every 12 months. Just visit AnnualCreditReport.com. Upon receiving your credit report, look for anything suspicious, i.e. accounts opened under your name that you are unaware of. If you notice anything suspicious, contact the credit bureaus immediately and consider placing a fraud alert on your reports.
Equifax — 1-800-525-6285
Experian — 1-888-397-3742
TransUnion — 1-800-680-7289

Don't list your date of birth and/or social security number on resume. There is no reason why most potential employers would need to know this information about you at first glance. Also, if you send your resume to 50 or 100 different employers, there is no telling how many hands your social security number may be in. And a potential employer may not be as mindful as you are about keeping a document like this secure.

Use your ATM card wisely.
Avoid going to the ATM late at night and always be sure no one is looking over your shoulder when you are entering your PIN.

Writing a checkGuard your checkbook
Since your checks come with your name, address, and bank account number right on them, you should guard these with care. Don't leave your checkbook in an unsecured place or your car. If stolen, the thief could write a fraudulent check or even break into your bank account. If you ever notice that any of your checks are missing, contact the bank immediately.

Select strong passwords.
Avoid using words or numbers that other people can easily guess. Using your birthdate or last four digits of your social security number are too obvious to use as passwords or PINs. Read Eric Wolfram's How to Pick a Safe Password for more information.

Secure personal information in your own home.
Just because you're in your home doesn't mean you're safe. If you have roommates or employ outside help, such as a housekeeper, avoid leaving your mail lying about and be secure your privacy when making any personal phone calls.

Know who else has your information
Inquire about personal security procedures at your work, doctor's office, university, or any other institution that keeps a record of your personal information. Find out who has access to your personal information, and verify that it is being handled securely. If you feel that your personal information is not being handled properly, contact the Federal Trade Commission or the Better Business Bureau.

What to Do if Your Identity Is Stolen

While these tips are designed to prevent identity theft, even the most scrupulous person is at risk. Should you ever become a victim, contact your banks and credit card issuers, the three major credit bureaus, file a police report, and file a complaint with the FTC.

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