Safeguarding your personal information and monitoring your finances are the keys to protecting yourself from identity theft. A few simple steps can make all the difference.
Keep your numbers private. This includes your Social Security number, driver’s license, passport, bank accounts, credit cards, retirement funds, date of birth, even your address and phone number. Any piece of identification that is unique to you could help someone steal your identity and your assets.
Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet. Keep it under lock and key. Don’t give the number out unless absolutely necessary. Many forms routinely ask for a Social Security number but do not require one. When in doubt, don’t provide it, and see if they come back to you for it. If they do, ask why they need it. This is YOUR information. You are not obligated to share it with anyone if they cannot provide sufficient proof that they need it.
Ditto for all your other information. Don’t leave your checkbook lying around in your car. Don’t leave your wallet in your drawer at work. If you are in a public place, keep your bag/purse/wallet zipped and close to you, as in, on your lap, not on the floor or the back of a chair. You may think you live in a safe area or are surrounded by good and honest people, but a good rule of thumb is to never leave your personal belongings unattended unless you’re willing to lose them. It only takes one set of sticky fingers to empty your bank account. This is not paranoia. This is caution.
Shred private information. Personal shredders are inexpensive and easy to find. Even a basic $30 shredder will enable you to dispose of your personal documents safely. Shred anything that has identifying information on it. This includes your name and address. A note of warning: paper to be shredded accumulates more quickly than you would think, so daily shredding is a good idea. If you get to the point where the volume is more than you can handle personally, there is another solution. Many cities and towns host regular community shredding events where residents can bring in boxes of papers and other items to be shredded. Check with your local public works or environmental services department.
Guard your mail. Invest in a locked mailbox. If you have anything to mail, take it directly to the post office rather than putting it in your home mailbox. If you are going out of town, put a hold on your mail. This can be done by filling out a form at your post office or online at www.usps.com. Mail can be held from 3 to 30 days and is available for delivery or pick up on your return.
Monitor your bills and statements. Whether you receive them electronically or on paper, read each bill and statement carefully. If you see any charges or activity that you cannot account for, contact your bank or credit card company immediately. Many institutions will also contact you if they suspect a charge is fraudulent, but you shouldn’t rely on them to do so.
Review your credit reports. You are legally entitled to a free copy of your credit report every 12 months. The three major consumer reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, have created a central web site, www.annualcreditreport.com, where you can request your reports. You can also request them by phone at 1-877-322-8228 or via mail by writing to:
Annual Credit Report Request Service
P.O. Box 105281
Atlanta, GA 30348-5281
If you request the information by mail, you will need to download and complete a request form. The form is available on the web site.
Once you receive the report, look for any accounts that you have not opened yourself or any outstanding debts that do not look familiar.