Identity theft is a current and growing problem for many individuals who are unaware of the risks they are exposed to every day in the course of normal life. Identity theft often leads to fraud, where the stolen data is used to create credit accounts or entirely new identities for the purposes of financial gain. While the methods of identity theft are varied, there are a few basic steps that everyone should take to eliminate their exposure to having their personal information used for fraudulent purposes.
1. Computer/Laptop/ Smart Phone Security Measures
With the advent of internet banking, communication and data storage, it is imperative to secure all electronic devices. Having a strong password for device security, using encryption methods and buying anti-hacking software can help limit unauthorized access to your devices. Be careful with public wireless internet hotspots that could be open to hacking as you surf the internet, and close your wireless and Bluetooth connections when you are not online. You can also use ‘tracking’ software on your devices that allows you to locate or even disable a phone or laptop that has been stolen.
2. SSN Protection
Never give out your social security number unless absolutely necessary. The SSN is the most vital piece of personal information sought by identity thieves, and should be protected at all costs. Also, if you do share it for a government application, loan approval or other credit reasons, ask how the number will be stored and who has access. You should never give out your SSN over the telephone, unless you initiated the call to a known business or agency. Many businesses will ask for it, but it may be ‘optional’ information, so just ask if it is a required piece of information.
3. Personal Mail Collection and Disposal
You should never leave bill payments or other financial correspondence in an open box or location. Place that correspondence in secure mailboxes or leave at the post office. Buy a shredder to destroy old bills and account statements before placing them in the trash, to prevent thieves from going through your trash to collect personal data. While this may seem like a ‘low-tech’ approach to identity theft, it is one of the easiest to use for thieves. Many individuals and businesses spend thousands of dollars on data and electronic security, and then just place sensitive mail and information in the trash for collection.
4. Requests for Personal Information By Phone and Email
There are a myriad of scams that are attempted by phone or email that can sound legitimate. As a general rule, never open a link in an email from an unknown sender as it could contain a virus or other hacking method to gain access to your computer. Most banks or financial companies will never request your data over the phone or via email, and this is a very common method for thieves with messages such as “confirm your account information to prevent closure”. The same rule applies to the telephone, where a caller requests some piece of information “just to update our records.” Legitimate bank requests will usually ask you to come into the branch personally.
5. Check Credit Report and Credit Card Statements
Check your credit report once a year or more, to make sure that no unauthorized credit accounts have been opened in your name. Also, review your credit card statements carefully, since one popular method of theft is to make small, infrequent charges that are easily missed by the cardholder. In some cases, using an identity security service can help you protect numerous accounts and sources, and alert you to unusual activity.
6. Social Media Accounts
With the popularity of social media such as Facebook that contains a range of personal information, it is fairly easy to gather data on someone from their profile. A good approach is to delete any physical address information, phone numbers, email addresses or other identifying data. Some people go so far as to use aliases on social media rather than their real name, since their friends will know who they are in any case. Refuse friend requests from strangers, unless you can verify who they are within your network.
It is impossible to prevent every form of identity theft, since even use of a credit card at a major retailer can expose your data to hackers. However, by following these basic steps you can eliminate the most common ways of stealing personal data, and like most criminals, identity thieves will move on to victims who are more vulnerable and leave themselves exposed to easy data theft. Even if you are already using these methods of data protection, share them with family members and especially elderly people who may not be aware of the modern hazards of identity theft.