Many victims of identity theft have had their vital information stolen in circumstances beyond their control, such as when a company they do business with is hacked. But in a significant number of cases, thieves obtain information from victims as a result of careless handling of financial documents or unknowingly giving out information to an impostor.
The following "do's" and "don'ts" will help to reduce your chances of becoming a victim:
- At home, keep your personal information safe. Don't leave information from financial accounts, Social Security, or driver's license numbers out where they may be seen by visitors to your home, such as a cleaning lady or dog walker.
- Be careful at the office as well. It's a bad idea to leave your personal bills or statements on your desk. Also, don't leave your purse or wallet unattended — lock them in a drawer. You may feel you can trust your co-workers, but what about other visitors?
Beware of "dumpster-diving"
Many identities are stolen as a result of criminals sifting through trash at residences or businesses. Thieves look for checks, credit card statements, bank and credit union statements, or anything with an account number or Social Security number on it. Be aware that what you throw away may get into the wrong hands!
- One of the best ways to protect yourself is to shred financial items before you throw them away — especially credit card, bank and credit union statements, "junk" credit card offers, and cash advance convenience checks from your established credit cards.
- Check your bank, credit union, and credit card account activity at least monthly, if not more often. If you can add a quick check of your accounts to your morning check of email and social media, you'll be able to spot suspicious transactions quickly and hopefully stop them before things get worse.
Look out for "pretexting"
Pretexting occurs when a thief pretends to be someone else and gets you to reveal personal information such as your account number, Social Security number, etc. The pretexter may pretend to be doing a survey, pose as an employee of a firm you do business with, or even announce that you've won a contest.
- Be suspicious of telephone calls or emails asking you to "verify" account information, passwords or your Social Security number. Don't give out any numbers — if the call is legitimate, the person on the other end won't have any problem putting their request in writing.
- Know that the IRS will never call and demand payment, nor would they ever request your personal information over the phone.
Beware the "skimmer"
Skimming occurs when you hand your credit card to a waiter or salesclerk, and they use a handheld device that "skims" the magnetic strip. The strip contains information that may include your name, address, credit limit, and PIN in addition to the credit card number itself. This one's hard to catch — and hard to stop.
- Cut down on the number of items you carry in your purse or wallet — many muggings occur primarily to steal your identity. Don't carry all your credit cards, just one or two. And don't keep your Social Security card in your wallet; that's the number one item thieves use to steal your identity.
- Also, be careful when you carry other cards that include your Social Security number. Medical insurance, dental insurance, and school ID cards may use your Social Security number. Consider leaving these at home if you don't absolutely need them with you.
Watch out for "shoulder surfing"
Another common method of identity theft is to steal your PIN number or account number by watching you punch it into a phone or ATM or hearing you give it over the phone. Look around you when giving out sensitive information — and keep your voice down!
- When you pay bills, don't leave them in an unlocked mailbox. Thieves often drive through suburban neighborhoods after everyone has gone to work. They quickly grab mail from boxes with the red flag up.
- Identity thieves may also come back around after the mail has been delivered. They are looking for credit card, bank and credit union statements that can be used to steal your identity. Consider getting a locked mailbox (if possible) or a post office box.
- According to the Federal Trade Commission, one of the best ways to catch identity theft is to check your credit report regularly. Order your free credit report each year to ensure that all the information is accurate and that no new accounts have been opened without your knowledge. Request your credit reports at www.annualcreditreport.com or by calling 877-322-8228.
There's no way to guarantee that you'll never be the victim of identity theft. But following each of these tips may help to keep your information out of a criminal's hands.