Identity theft is a scary thing. The havoc that one crafty hacker or scammer can wreak is not to be underestimated. You’ve probably known someone who’s had their identity stolen, or perhaps you’ve even been the victim yourself. It can be such a headache. But we’ve got some tips to help you prevent identity theft and protect your personal information.
1. Be on the alert for identity theft.
There are a few signs that you should be aware of that could signify someone has stolen your identity. If this is the case, it’s best to handle the situation as quickly as possible, which means being aware of the problem in the first place.
Look out for the following:
- Not getting your bills on time
- Receiving credit cards you didn’t apply for
- Having a poor credit score that is unexpected or unexplainable
- Debt collectors asking (none-too-politely) for money
- Accounts you didn’t sign for
- Debts that you can’t explain
2. Be wise to phishing scams.
Phishing is when a hacker or scammer pretends to be a reputable institution, such as your bank, so that you’ll give them your personal information. They impersonate someone you trust, ask for your information, and voila – your identity is gone. Whoops. (If you’re wondering, an example of phishing is the Google Docs scam that went around a while back and tricked a lot of people.)
Be aware of any suspicious emails, or emails asking you to “verify your account information” or password. Reputable organizations wouldn’t reach out like that to sort out a problem with your account. Basically, be skeptical when going through emails. If you doubt that it’s a real email, it probably is not.
A general rule of thumb is not to give out personal information unless you were the one to reach out to a business or organization.
3. Step up your password game.
Make your passwords difficult to guess. They need to be strong so that no one can easily crack them. So, you might not want to choose something like “password” or 123456 to serve as your password.
Instead, choose a password that’s at least 8 characters long, has a mix of letters and numbers, and includes symbols (like !@#$&.) That’ll give a hacker a bit more trouble if they’re trying to break into your account.
Also, use a different password for every account. Yes, it’s tempting to use the same one for everything because it’s easier to remember, but that means that a sneaky hacker has a key to all of your accounts and not just one of them if they crack your password.
4. Don’t fall for pop-ups or spam emails.
Don’t click links in pop-up messages online or in spam emails. Those could give a hacker access to your computer and cause an identity theft situation. Not good.
Pro tip: When in doubt, don’t click.
5. Be smart on social media.
It’s important that you don’t overshare on social media. Of course, social media is great and has its perks. But the problem is that identity thieves can use the personal information you post against you. For instance, they can use it to create a scam designed just for you (which is called spear phishing) by impersonating a friend or family member using details you’ve posted to social media.
So, don’t be your own downfall by posting too much information online. Yes, there is such a thing as too much sharing.
Pro tip: Be especially cautious on social media when you’re on vacation. If you post about your plans, a tech-savvy burglar could find out and realize that your home will be unprotected.
6. Keep an eye on your credit card bills and bank statements.
It’s important that you open your credit card bills and bank statements ASAP. Okay, it’s probably not something you particularly want to do and you might do it with one eye closed and the letter held as far away from you as possible, but you need to check that all the charges and numbers look right. Everything should check out. If it doesn’t, you need to handle the situation as quickly as possible.
Also, if your credit card bill is late, call and ask about it immediately. Chances are the people wanting money aren’t going to dilly-dally about asking for it. If the bill doesn’t show up when it’s supposed to, someone could have changed the address to conceal their wrongdoing – a.k.a. fraudulent charges.
7. Be careful when you’re shopping online.
Shopping online is great…except if your identity gets stolen.
When you’re shopping online, be sure to check that the URL of the website you’re on begins with https:// and has a padlock icon next to it. This means that the site is secure and that your personal information (like your credit card number) is being encrypted, or protected from hackers.
8. Cancel pre-screened credit card offers.
We’ve probably all gotten those thick envelopes containing a pre-screened or approved credit offer. But if a thief were to steal your mail, they could cause a lot of trouble with one of those. It’s best just to opt out of pre-screened credit card offers. And you should remove your name from credit bureau lists.
9. Keep your Social Security Number safe.
You definitely don’t want anyone to get ahold of your Social Security Number (SSN.) So, you need to keep it safe. Don’t carry around your SSN card in your purse or wallet, and don’t carry anything with your Social Security Number written on it. Be careful whenever any institution asks for your SSN – ask why they want it, what it will be used for, and whether it’s truly necessary for you to provide it. Take a moment to really consider if the people asking should have it.
10. Shred any documents with personal information.
Buy yourself an early birthday present and get a paper shredder. Shred any documents that you don’t need to keep if they have personal information on it. For example, ATM receipts should be shredded. It’s kind of fun to watch the paper get turned into teeny tiny pieces, actually.
11. Check your credit report.
You can request a free – that’s right, free! – copy of your credit report from each of the three credit-reporting bureaus every year (meaning Equifax, Experion, and TransUnion.) If there are any strange charges or unexplainable numbers, you need to raise the alarm. It’s important to monitor your credit report – your credit score and your home insurance rates are related.
12. Ask a lot of questions.
Whenever you have to give personal information, be sure to ask a lot of questions before just handing it over. Ask why they need it. Ask how it will be used. Ask how it will be protected and if it will be shared. These are all things you need to know about. It may seem a little paranoid, but you can’t be too careful. Just be polite about it and explain that you’re asking because you’re worried about identity theft.
Having your identity stolen can turn into a real mess, which is why everyone considers the possibility with a certain amount of dread. Take care to protect your identity with the above tips. The best strategy when it comes to identity theft is to prevent it from happening in the first place.
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