More and more, the method that crooks, criminals, and other ne’er-do-wells use in order to get their hands on your money is not robbing you in person, but rather, by getting your personal information and commiting identity theft. While the number of victims decreased last year, there’s still more than a small chance that you (or someone you care for) could be affected, with 8.1 million US residents who were victims of identity theft in 2010 alone.
Of course, there’s nothing that says you MUST be a victim; in fact, there’s more than a few steps you can take to ensure that you avoid identity theft altogether, saving yourself lots of time and aggravation (if not a sizable chunk of money). So, what sort of things can you do to keep your personal information personal, and your identity safe from theft? Well, for starters:
1. Watch What You Share: With social networks like Facebook and Google+ becoming ever increasingly popular, would-be identity thieves have more ways than ever to obtain information about you that can be used to gain access to your accounts. To cite but one example, Facebook enables women to include their maiden names as part of their user profile; with many accounts using ‘Mother’s Maiden Name’ as a security question, it’s not much of a stretch to see how a hacker could use that info to gain access to other accounts. Be careful about what information you share, and the people with whom you share it. Also, on a similar note:
2. Don’t Use Real Information for Your Security Questions: For most places you need a password (which is most of them, it seems), you will need to provide further information to allow you to get back online if you forget your password. Most of them offer questions like ‘What was your first pet?’ and ‘What’s Your Father’s Middle Name?’; the problem is, when you use real answers to such questions, you run the risk that others will figure it out (particularly when, say, your father’s middle name is the same as yours.) Instead, use answers that you can remember, but which aren’t actually the real, say, name of your first pet. It might take a little while to figure out good answers, but should be possible to figure something out.
3. Watch the Mail You Receive and Send: In spite of all the worry about the use of the internet to steal identities, a large amount of identity theft occurs the old-fashioned way: would-be thieves getting a hold of your personal information via the mail. It could be getting a hold of mail heading towards you, or intercepting outgoing mail. How can you prevent this? Well, among other means, you can make sure that your outgoing bills are mailed from the post office (so criminals don’t take it from your mailbox), use the Internet to pay your bills when possible, and make sure that your address is up to date with all your creditors.
4. Only Give Personal Information When You Instigate the Interaction: There are many times when you will be asked to give personal information to some individual or organization. DON’T DO IT! Or at least, don’t do it unless you are the one who initiates the encounter. It’s one thing to give credit card information as you check out of Amazon; it’s a much different situation to give personal information to someone sending you an email that CLAIMS they are from Amazon. This goes for all forms of contact, from email and telephone calls to offers you receive in the mail. If you do respond to something, make sure you verify with the organization that they are the source of the contact information.
5. Watch Those Credit Scores: If something does happen to your identity, one of the first places it will be reflected is in your credit scores. You’ve probably heard about these, the scores maintained by three organizations that attempt to determine how likely you are to pay back your loans. If something happens, if someone uses your identity to take on more credit, it’ll be reflected here. If you want to really be safe, you can also contact the credit bureaus and ‘freeze’ your credit, to prevent new credit from being open in your name. (Using LifeLock will not typically be enough; luckily, there’s plenty that you can do without needing their services.)