According to the FTC, an estimated 9 million Americans have their identities stolen every year. Because creditors are not required to report instances of identity theft to the FTC, these numbers may actually be much higher. Identity thefts are up 5% this year alone.
It can take more than 100 hours—and large sums of money—to fix your credit after an identity thief strikes. Besides using your credit cards, thieves may rent apartments, obtain employment in your name, use your information to get medical care, or create telephone and utilities accounts in your name.
If the idea of identity theft frightens you, it should. But you’re far from helpless. A few basic protective measures will go far in keeping your identity secure. Here are eleven ways to protect yourself from identity theft:
1. Don’t write down credit card numbers. If a service provider or merchant asks you to write your credit card number on a bill, check, or envelope, don’t. Instead, share your credit card number over the phone or online.
2. Don’t give anyone your credit card number unless you initiated contact. That is, you called them, or you know exactly who is calling you, and why. If you’re not sure, don’t share your number.
3. Shred, tear up, or burn credit card application forms. Thieves sometimes fill these out in your name in order to steal your identity.
4. Check your billing statements every month. Look for fraudulent charges on statements. If you find questionable charges, call your bank and report them. If you find a change of address or other new information associated with your account—without having initiated it–call your bank and alert them.
5. If you don’t receive bills, be suspicious. As nice as it may be not to have bills in your mailbox, it might be a sign of identity theft. If you haven’t filed a change of address, contact your post office to see if someone has done it in your name. Filing fake change-of-address forms is one identity theft technique.
6. Tear up, shred, or burn any mail containing personal information. Identity thieves sometimes dumpster-dive.
7. Beware of phishing scams. When you see an email that looks like it’s from a bank, PayPal, eBay, or any other site you might be registered to, be on guard. Look for misspelled or strange sender email addresses—they may be phishing. Don’t verify any account information directly through an email. Go to the service provider’s website instead. Log in from there. And don’t respond to any pop-ups.
8. Don’t give your social security number or date of birth to anyone calling you. Some thieves “pretext,” that is, they pretend to be someone they’re not in order to steal your information. They can be pretending to be a research firm, credit card or mortgage company, etc. Once they have your information, they call your bank to obtain information about your bank account and credit card number. Rule of thumb: If they called you first, don’t give them anything.
9. Look over your shoulder. According to the Department of Justice, “shoulder surfing” is a tried-and-true way to steal an identity. A thief looks over your shoulder as you enter a credit card number on your phone, or they listen in when you give your number to someone on the phone. Be discreet when dealing with personal information.
10. Keep your personal information stashed somewhere safe. Don’t carry your Social Security card around with you. Try not to carry your medical cards unless you have to. Make your Internet account passwords complicated and hard to crack by including letters, numbers, and symbols. Don’t leave your wallet or purse laying around in places where people might be interested in stealing information (this can include your place of work). Vigilance pays.
11. Don’t use your debit card to pay anything online. That applies to automatic bill payment services, e-commerce transactions, insurance payments, and anything else that isn’t a loan. If thieves steal your actual money (vs. the bank’s credit-card money), it may result in more heartache if you do get hit by identity theft.