10 Ways to Minimize Your Exposure to Identity Theft

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You don’t help burglars break into your house by leaving the doors unlocked or hand over your car keys to an auto thief. Yet, every day, Americans share sensitive information that can be used for identity theft – an offense that is much more widespread and costly than property theft.

According to the most recent data available, 16.6 million victims of identity theft reported a total of $24.7 billion in direct and indirect losses in 2012. Those damages were far greater than the $14 billion lost from all other property crimes (burglary, motor vehicle theft, and genera theft) that year.

That data comes from the Department of Justice in its Victims of Identity Theft, 2012, report published in December. It found that identity theft losses were more than four times greater than losses due to stolen money and property in burglaries ($5.2 billion), and eight times the total losses associated with motor vehicle theft ($3.1 billion).

What’s more, this data is from 2012 – the most recent data available from the Department of Justice. We won’t know 2013’s numbers for another year, but considering the massive data breaches that targeted several large retailers just four months ago, these numbers will likely be even higher.

With these facts in mind, here are ten measures you should be taking right now to protect your personal information and provide your best defense against identity theft:

1. Shred important documents

Identity thieves love waste baskets and dumpsters. These receptacles can be a great resource for fraud, so it’s important to destroy all of your important documents with a crosscut shredder, which slices and dices, to ensure they’re completely obliterated.

2. Watch your cards

This means actively monitoring your credit and debit card accounts to check for any unauthorized charges or transactions. Don’t wait until your statement arrives to check for unusual activity or unauthorized charges. If you spot any unauthorized or unusual charges, contact your bank or credit card issuer immediately.

3. Check your credit report cards

Your credit report is often the first place you’re likely to identify potential signs of identity theft. By law, you’re entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies once every twelve months. The Fair Credit Reporting Act gives you this federally mandated right, and if you’re not taking advantage of it – you should be.

4. Monitor your credit

Checking your credit report once a year is a given, but monitoring it regularly is one of the most effective ways of catching the first signs of identity theft. Think of your credit as the canary in the coalmine. By keeping an eye on it with regular monitoring, you can quickly spot the sorts of discrepancies that signal identity theft. Most monitoring services provide real-time alerts to help you pinpoint possible signs of fraud before they cause major damage to your credit reports and scores. And while most credit monitoring services will cost you a small monthly fee, by taking advantage of free resources like CreditSesame, it doesn’t have to cost you a dime.

5. Use strong passwords

Make sure you protect all of your important hardware and sensitive accounts by using a strong password. Experts suggest you create passwords by mixing uppercase and lowercase letters with numbers and symbols. It’s also a good idea to change passwords regularly and never use the same password on all your accounts.

6. Don’t take the bait

Never respond to phishing emails, or unsolicited emails of any kind, asking for personal data or information, and never click a link in those kinds of communications. If there is an offer you would like to pursue, conduct your own Internet search before doing so and follow the links you find from it.

7. No card carrying

You’d be surprised by how may people carry their social security card around with them in a purse or wallet. This presents a tremendous opportunity for identity theft. A social security number can be used to apply for credit cards, open a bank account or get a loan. Obviously, you don’t want yours out in public unless it needs to be. Find a safe place for your social security card and keep it there.

8. Lock and block

If you are going to send sensitive information over the Internet, make sure to use encryption software that scrambles the data and keeps it safe from prying eyes. You should also make sure to look for the “lock” icon in the status bar of your browser when sending data. This is an indication that you have a secure connection with the recipient.

9. Don’t be too social

Everyone loves to talk and share news about themselves on social media. But too much information isn’t just an annoying catch-phrase. It can also be a problem. An identity thief can learn enough about your life to answer challenge questions on accounts and get access to money and other personal data. Never post your full name, date of birth, address, phone number, Social Security number or account numbers on any publicly accessible site, and be sure to limit access to your networking pages.

10. Recognize security differences

A secure website is not the same thing as a secure network. An encrypted website only protects data you send to that site. Don’t mistake a secure website for an unsecured network. This is especially important when using a wireless network or free Wi-Fi in a coffee shop, airport or other public space, which are prime targets for identity theft.

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Published May 6, 2014 Updated: April 15, 2016
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