Imagine you are drinking your morning coffee, you open the newspaper to catch up on the current events and much to your surprise you see your name in an article describing a man who was arrested the night before on drug charges. You brush it off as a coincidence that someone shares your same name, have a quick laugh about it, and go about your day; however, the next week you are fired from your job for not informing them of your criminal record. This is when you realize your identity has been stolen.
This is just one example of how an identity thief can steal and use your personal information. An identity thief can use your personal information to drain your bank account, run up charges on your credit cards, open new utility accounts in your name, get medical treatment on your health insurance, file a tax return in your name and get your refund, or, as in our example above, give your name to the police during an arrest. Regardless of how your identity is stolen, it can be a very scary time and it can take years to repair the damage that was done. While no one can completely protect himself or herself from becoming a victim of identity theft, there are a few simple things you can be doing now that help reduce your risk.
- Review your monthly statements: Check your bank accounts and statements and look for any inconsistencies. Make sure that your records match up with what your statements are saying. Look for any charges you do not remember making.
- Order and review credit reports: Go to annualcreditreport.com and order your free credit report from each credit reporting agency. Review your credit reports to make sure that they match up with your records.
- Keep personal information secure: Keep your personal information in a safe and secure place both at home and at work. Keep the location of this information to yourself. Many times our identities are stolen by people we know and often trust.
- Minimize information you carry: Clean out your wallet/purse. Only carry what you need (identification, credit or debit card). Most of the time you do not need to have your social security card with you, leave it at home in a safe and secure place. Minimize the information an identity thief would have about you if they stole your wallet or purse.
- Pick up mail promptly: Identity thieves can obtain sensitive personal information about you by stealing your mail. If you do not have a locked mailbox, make sure to pick up your mail promptly. Along with this, if you have to mail an item that contains personal information drop it off directly at the post office instead of leaving it in your mailbox.
- Shred documents containing personal information: Another way that identity thieves get sensitive information is by going through the trash outside of personal residences and businesses (“dumpster diving”). Shred documents that contain personal information before throwing them in the trash.
- Before sharing personal information ask: WHY, WHAT, HOW: If someone asks for your personal information, particularly your social security number, ask why they need the information, what they are going to use it for, and how they are going to protect it. If you do not feel comfortable with their answers, do not give them your personal information.
- Keep passwords private: Try and avoid making passwords that are easy to guess based on general information about yourself (pet names, children names, street addresses etc). Add numbers, symbols, and capitalized letters when possible. If you must write down your passwords keep them in a safe and secure place (ie: not taped under mousepad).
- Be careful about information you put on social media sites: An identity thief can find out a lot about a person based on the information they put on social media sites such as Facebook and Linkedin. Be careful about what information you put on these sites, and make sure to check your privacy settings to see who can see information about you.
While no one is completely safe from becoming a victim of identity theft, taking a few simple steps can greatly reduce your risk. For more information on how to protect yourself from becoming a victim of identity theft check out this video by the Federal Trade Commission: http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/media/video-0023-what-identity-theft
For more information on identity theft in general visit: http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0014-identity-theft