If I said that identity theft is no fun, it would be a lot like telling you the sky is blue and water is wet — a bit of an understatement.
Identity theft is one of the most devastating things that can happen financially, but it’s also far more common than a lot of people realize. About 15 million U.S. consumers were affected by identity fraud in 2016, according to a study by Javelin Strategy & Research. In total, about $16 billion was stolen from those victims.
Given the potentially lucrative results of identity theft, it’s no surprise hackers and would-be thieves are becoming smarter and more strategic about how they steal financial information. It’s also more important than ever to take every precaution possible to protect your personal data.
Fortunately, there are five things you can do to boost your odds of avoiding identity theft. Better yet, each step only takes a few seconds.
1. Lock Down Your Financial Info...
Many people mistakenly believe someone needs all their financial data — including bank account information and credit card numbers — to steal an identity. In truth, many thieves are savvy enough to steal your identity with as little as one piece of information.
You know that pile of old bank statements in your office? Either file them away or shred them, as they contain plenty of sensitive information. Don't leave credit cards lying around your house! In the case of a break-in, it's better that someone steals your physical belongings than your financial information.
It's equally important to stay secure online. Regularly change your passwords, and don’t use the same password for every account. Craft complex passwords that use a combination of lowercase and uppercase letters, numbers, and symbols. Make your password incredibly difficult to guess, and you’ll be better off.
2. ...And Your Personal Info
Unfortunately, your financial data isn’t the only thing you need to worry about. You should also safeguard other forms of personal information.
Your social security number, birth certificate, or passport is often all someone needs to steal your identity, making it imperative to lock those items away safely. Never carry these documents with you — especially in your wallet next to your credit cards or checkbook — and store them somewhere secure in your house.
If thieves know your full name, address, and birthday, they can sometimes piece together everything else they need. Never share your full address, phone number, or birthdate on social media or other online forums — including job applications. Be careful about sharing photos or other personal information online. For example, don’t let your teenage daughter post photos of her new driver's license on Facebook, regardless of how proud she might be.
3. Check Your Credit Report Often
Some of the first places you can detect signs of identity theft are your credit report and credit card statements. As a result, it’s crucial to regularly check these documents. If a credit card has been compromised, you might spot purchases you never made popping up on your statements. Your credit score will usually take a hit, too.
Many lenders will alert you of any suspicious activity on your accounts, but you shouldn't wait until you get a phone call to look for unusual behavior. Read through your statements thoroughly to ensure all the purchases reflect your spending, and check your credit report at least monthly to see whether anything looks amiss.
4. Shred Your Snail Mail
Credit card companies and banks routinely send out new offers to their members. If you’re not interested, that mail likely goes straight in the trash. Some thieves view garbage as an information goldmine, and they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty to find your personal data.
Credit card statements, bank statements, and preapproved credit card offers all include personal account information and credit card numbers that thieves love to steal. Invest in a paper shredder to properly dispose of the mountains of snail mail containing your information. If buying a fancy new shredder seems excessive, you can always manually shred your mail using the old grip-and-rip method.
5. Stay Alert
It's easy to get so caught up in safeguarding your personal information online and at home that you forget to stay alert when you're out and about. Whether you're out shopping, at the bank, or using an ATM, keep your eyes peeled for anything that might seem slightly suspicious.
Always know where your wallet is, don't keep your credit card loose in your pocket, and never tell anyone your personal identification number. Make sure any ATM you use is legitimate, and be careful when handing over your credit card to cashiers at stores or restaurants. If it seems like they’re taking too long or they appear to be hiding something, they could be running your card through a skimmer to steal its information.
In the event someone steals your credit card information, it's thankfully a somewhat easy problem to resolve. Simply call your card issuer and explain any charges that aren't yours. Most companies have zero-liability policies, which means you don’t have to pay for any purchases you didn’t make.
To reduce your risk of ever getting to that point, it's important to protect your personal information. Swindlers will go to great lengths to steal financial data, but a few precautions can guard you against identity theft.
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