While there are no measures that will completely stop someone from stealing your identity, there some basic identity theft prevention steps that you can take to make stealing your identity more difficult.
Types of identity theft
There are two kinds of identity theft: account takeover and application fraud. Account takeover identity theft occurs when someone gains access to your credit cards and starts charging products and services to them. Application fraud identity theft occurs when someone is able to get your social security number and enough other information about you to open up new accounts under your name.
While account takeover is nasty, application fraud is even more difficult to fix because victims may not be aware that credit fraud is occurring. This makes it essential to review your credit report every year. You can receive a free credit report from each of the major credit reporting companies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) once every 12 months. Get them and check to see if everything about your credit looks normal. In addition, you can get a free credit report within 60 days of a company denying you credit or insurance so that you can make sure no one has been fraudulently using your credit.
Identity theft protection for credit cards
One way to reduce the risk of unauthorized use of your credit cards is to simply reduce the number of credit cards that you use. Take all of your credit card receipts home and shred them so that an individual cannot get your credit card number by rooting through the trash. Keep a list of your credit card numbers, expiration dates and the phone numbers of issuers in a safe place – not in your wallet or purse – so that you can easily get them if your cards are lost or stolen.
It’s usually a good idea to avoid handing your credit card to servers or retail employees and letting them walk off with it. While the great majority of these people are honest, a few high-profile cases of identity theft have been committed by unscrupulous employees who wrote down or photocopied credit card numbers. Keep your card and the employee in sight at all times. Most restaurants can bring a credit-card reader to your table. If they can’t, follow the employee to the card reader or ask to pay at the bar, which almost always has its own card reader.
Consider installing a locked mailbox at your home. While this may not prevent a very determined person from stealing your new credit card or other important information, it will slow down a more casual criminal.
When you’re shopping, and particularly if you’re shopping online, always try to use a credit card rather than a debit card. You’re legally protected if someone uses your credit card to make fraudulent purchases, but you might not be protected if someone steals your debit card number and wipes out your bank account. It’s also much easier to cancel or reverse charges on a credit card if the site that you buy from never ships you what you ordered.
Identity theft protection for passwords and PINs
Be careful when you use password or PIN numbers while in a public place. Thieves can use cell phones to take pictures of your credit card and memorize your PIN. Check the door openers on ATM machines and card readers at supermarkets before using them. Some sophisticated identity thieves will replace these devices with fakes that capture your personal information.
When you’re choosing a password or PIN number, do not pick easy numbers, such as your birthday or your phone number. Some identity theft is committed by people you know, such as friends and roommates, who are likely to start trying to guess your password with these obvious choices.
Change your passwords at least twice a year. If you have trouble remembering your passwords or PINs, keep them in that secure place with your credit card information. Never leave passwords near your desk, and never carry PINs in your wallet or purse, as this makes it easy for a thief to use your credit and ATM cards. Never, ever write PINs on the back of your cards – this is the first place thieves will look for them.
Identity theft protection with your computer
Most of the same tools that protect your computer from viruses offer identity theft protection as well. Be sure to use an antivirus program and a firewall, and secure your wireless network with WEP codes and MAC Address Filtering to prevent unauthorized use. Be sure to run virus scans at least once a week.
Don’t keep a copy of account numbers and passwords on your computer in a database or word processing document, no matter how secure the computer. Computers have a high resale value on the black market, making them a popular target for thieves. If yours is stolen, what began as a physical loss will escalate into identity theft if someone opens that file. Print the information out, store it in a secure place, and delete the original files.
Never open e-mail or instant messenger attachments from people you don’t know. Some of these can contain keyloggers and other spyware that records your personal information and sends it back to thieves.
Don’t respond to any e-mail asking you for personal information or account numbers. This is known as phishing, and the phony e-mails and Web sites can look just like a site that you trust. Remember that financial services companies never ask for your information by e-mail. If you get a request for this information, even if it’s from eBay or PayPal, look up the customer service number on the Web (not in the e-mail) and call the company directly.
If you sell your computer, delete all your personal files and use a registry cleaner, if needed, to scour out all of your personal information. If you have CDs for your computer’s operating system, the best solution is to completely erase the hard drive and reinstall the OS. If you don’t have the disk, a computer support company can reinstall your OS for a fee.