Whether we like it or not, identity thieves are resourceful. Their methods are as varied as the ways in which consumers need to use some form of identification to initiate and complete transactions. It can all be confusing and intimidating, but consumers need not feel helpless against the expanding threat of identity theft. For most of the tactics used by the bad guys, there are countermeasures for consumers. These measures cannot completely ensure that a consumer?s identity is safe, but the odds of becoming a victim decline with each protective step taken. What follows is a non-exhaustive collection of safeguards you can put in place to lower the chances that a stranger will do you harm, even as he adds the insult of pretending to be you.
In the Short Term
Obtain, review, and ensure the accuracy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus. These reports have information on where you work and live, your credit accounts, how you pay your bills, and whether you have been sued or arrested or have filed for bankruptcy. Use random passwords on your credit card, bank, and telephone accounts rather than birthdays, initials, or other obvious passwords. Make sure that the personal information in your home is secure, especially when you have roommates, employ outside workers, or have service and repair work done in your home. Look into security procedures for personal information at work. You should be able to find out who can access your information, how your records are kept secure, and what the employer?s procedures are for the disposal of records.
Good Habits to Acquire
Unless you initiated the contact or you know to a certainty with whom you are communicating, do not give out personal information over the telephone, through the mail, or over the Internet. Before sharing information with an organization, use a website or telephone directory to check on its legitimacy. Remove your regular mail as promptly as possible from your mailbox before a would-be identity thief beats you to it. For outgoing mail, put it into a collection box rather than leaving it to be picked up from your mailbox. Let the Postal Service hold your mail if you are going to be away. Yes, it may sound like overkill at home, but it still makes sense to shred or tear up all those discarded charge receipts and similar papers with personal information. There are people out there more than willing to go through your garbage if it means they get to use your credit cards. Travel light, financially speaking. Carry only such identifying information, or credit and debit cards, as you will actually need. Stay on top of the timing of your credit card bills. A late or missing bill may be a sign that a thief already has taken over your account. Approach promotional contacts with a healthy skepticism. Phony offers are too often successful in getting personal information straight from the victim himself. Secure your Social Security number. Keep the card itself in a safe place, not on your person. Ask questions and be satisfied by the answers if any person or business asks for your number. There are some legitimate reasons for giving out your number, but it is not a good enough reason when a business simply wants your number as part of its standard record-keeping.
Computers have their own unique set of threats to the security of your identity, but there is good advice for the wary here, too. Update virus protection software regularly. Do not download files or click on hyperlinks coming from strangers. Use a secure browser and a firewall program, especially if you use a high-speed Internet connection. Avoid storing financial information on a laptop but, if you must, use a strong, random password, do not use an automatic login feature, and always log off when you are finished.