How to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft

Living in an open society such as ours where a significant amount of personal information about you is stored on dozens of databases accessed easily by strangers, clerks, hackers and other assorted thieves, makes it impossible to protect yourself 100 percent from becoming an identity theft victim.  However, there are steps you can take to reduce your odds of becoming a victim --

Get your name off of direct marketing lists.  The fewer credit card and loan offers you receive in the mail, the fewer chances there are for a thief to steal your identity the old-fashioned way -- by stealing your mail.  You should definitely opt out of direct marketing lists if your mail is vulnerable to theft, you are planning to move, or you move a lot.  Don't assume that the post office will forward your mail because many times they do not forward mail as requested.  If the post office fails to forward all of your mail, those pre-approved credit card offers will continue to go to your old address. The person now living there can purchase your social security number online quite easily and get a credit card in your name. Click here for information on opting out of direct marketing offers.

Check your credit reports at least once a year.  A relative, friend or stranger could obtain a credit card or loan in your name and you would never know it unless he or she defaulted or you checked your credit report and noticed a strange account listed there. This is because most creditors are very lax in verifying the information on credit applications.  If someone has your social security number and a few other bits of personal information about you, they can get credit, utilities, a cell phone, a lease or any number of things in your name with little effort. Until very recently, creditors would even allow applicants to use a post office box as their address.  Now, one must use a physical address, but few creditors will question the fact that the applicant has applied for credit or housing using an address that does not appear on your credit report.  

The good news is that Congress passed a law requiring the three credit bureaus -- Experian, Equifax and Trans Union - to give each consumer one free copy of their credit reports each year.  Click here to find out how to get your free credit reports.

Keep your social security number and other financial data hidden from everyone that you can.  A significant percentage of identity theft victims are victimized by someone they know, be it their parent, sister, brother, friend, or employee.   Burglars who break into houses are just as likely these days to go after financial data, bank accounts, social security numbers, etc., as they are to go after jewelry. 

You could easily be an identity theft victim and never know it.  For example, your best friend Mary, who has bad credit, snuck in to your home office while you ran to the supermarket and stole your social security number and bank account number -- not to steal from you, but to use your identity to lease a townhouse and get her water turned on.  She can't get these services in her name because she defaulted on a prior lease and still owes the utility company $300 on an old water bill.  As long as Mary pays her rent and water bill on time each month, these accounts will never be reported to your credit report.  The only way you would ever know they existed was if Mary defaulted and a debt collector tracked you down at your true address.

For these reasons, keep all of your financial data, including your social security number, bank account numbers, PIN numbers, etc. under lock and key away from burglars, prying relatives and friends, particularly those with bad credit who have an incentive to use someone else's identity to obtain products and services they need.  Empty your wallet and purse of all financial data that you can so that if it is stolen the thief will have limited information about you.  Don't carry around your social security card and credit cards that you don't use.

Be aware of phishing schemes.  Phishing schemes are the most popular way to commit identity theft today.  A phishing scheme is a scheme where thieves send out fake e-mails, usually millions at a time, to try and trick the recipients in to clicking on a link in the email and giving up personal information, such as an account number, password, PIN number, or credit card number, so that the thieves can commit some type of identity theft against that person be it credit card fraud or stealing funds from a bank account.  The emails appear to be from legitimate companies, such as Citibank, Bank of America, Paypal, EBay, or perhaps a local bank, but they are not.  The emails usually contain language that tries to scare the recipient into complying with instructions to click on a link in the email and confirm account information; otherwise, the recipient might suffer some sort of loss, be it account suspension or loss of funds.

There is a very simple way to avoid all phishing schemes -- do not click on any links in emails you receive period.  You certainly never should click on a link in an email and give up personal or financial information, but you should also be aware that just by clicking on those links, you could launch a program or virus that silently downloads on  to your computer and allows hackers to take over your computer and gain access to your passwords and financial data.  Companies like Citibank, Bank of America, PayPal and the like do not normally send out emails asking you to verify account information.  If you suspect that the email is valid, there is a simple way to find out.  Instead of clicking on the link in the email, type in the company address in your browser's menu bar (for example, www.citibank.com) and log directly in to your account.  If the company needs you to confirm account information, there will be a notification at the time you log-in to your account or shortly thereafter.  Read our section entitled, "Scams" to be aware of common financial scams.

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