Understanding Credit & Debt
Protecting Your Identity: 4 Steps to Reduce Your Risk
Make It Harder for Thieves to Get Your Personal Information
Identity theft is affecting millions of people each year, but there are things you can do to reduce your chance of having your personal information stolen.
Keep an Eye on Your Accounts
One significant risk is the unauthorized use of credit or debit cards, whether the cards were stolen or criminals obtained the account information by other means, such as hacking into a retailer’s card-processing system. “You simply have no way of knowing which retailers have been breached by hackers,” says Al Pascual, Director of Fraud and Security for Javelin Strategy & Research, until the companies inform you.
Your best bet is to carefully monitor statements and immediately notify your card issuer if you suspect discrepancies. If you receive paper statements in the mail, shred them before disposing of them, or consider getting them online instead.
You can take this vigilance a step further with customized automatic alerts, if your card provider gives you this option. For example, you might set up an alert that lets you know, with a text or email message, when a withdrawal or purchase exceeds a certain amount.
Common Sense for Road Warriors
The smart phones and laptops that have become indispensable tools can also make us more vulnerable to identity thieves, who can strip information from mobile devices that have been lost or stolen. Whenever possible, Pascual recommends using tools that let you erase data remotely on a missing cell phone, tablet or laptop. You can set this up in advance on many devices.
Using WiFi networks can also be risky, as signals can be intercepted, especially in public places like a coffee shop, where a fake WiFi network can capture your data. It's usually best to avoid logging into your financial accounts over a public WiFi connection.
Safer Web Surfing
At home, make sure to keep your anti-virus and anti-malware software current. You should frequently update passwords to log into websites holding any personal information that you wouldn’t want to fall into the wrong hands. If possible, encrypt sensitive financial documents, such as tax returns or bank statements that you store on your computer. For example, some Windows operating systems and most Microsoft Office products allow users to encrypt files. You can also purchase encryption software.
By now, you probably know to avoid clicking on suspicious email attachments or providing your financial information to questionable websites. On the web, Pascual recommends looking for the signs of a secure website — a padlock symbol and the letters "https" in the site's address -- before entering any sensitive data. “A green bar with a padlock—indicating the identity of the business has been verified and the data is encrypted—is even better,” he says.
Protect Your Medical Records
Thieves covet medical records, too. They might tap into the health insurance information to get services, or scour the records for your data like your Social Security number, date of birth or credit card number.
“Most doctors ask for your Social Security number purely to locate you in their patient management systems,” Pascual says. Unless your Social Security number is also your health insurance ID, he says it's best to politely decline to share it. He also recommends reviewing all correspondence from your health insurance company to make sure that claims are accurate.
Finally, since there is no way to entirely eliminate the threat of identity theft, take advantage of your right to a free credit report each year from each the three big credit reporting agencies to look for signs of illicit activity. The three jointly operate a central website, annualcreditreport.com, where you can order the reports. Since you're allowed one free report from each agency each year, some consumers stagger their requests by visiting once every four months and getting one of the three reports each time.
“After prevention, early detection is the next best thing,” says Pascual. “The sooner you identify fraud, the fewer consequences you will suffer.”