Identity theft is a growing problem in the U.S., and pandemic relief made it worse as identity thieves targeted relief checks and unemployment benefits. Nearly 42 million Americans were victims of identity fraud in 2021, costing consumers $52 billion in total losses, according to an AARP-sponsored report. Here are ten ways to safeguard your personal information from identity thieves.
Don’t share your personal information
Be wary when you’re asked to provide your birthdate, social security number, or account number by telephone, via email, through the mail, or over the Internet. Don’t post personal information, like your birthdate, on social media or elsewhere online. If someone contacts you and says they’re calling from someplace like your bank, credit card company, or the IRS, simply hang up and call the organization’s service number before you give any personal information.
Create unique and complex passwords
It’s common for users to use the same login and password across multiple sites. Unfortunately, hackers know this as well. If they compromise one account, that info can be used to try to access your other accounts. Since most of us have multiple logins, it can be difficult for us to remember every single password. One solution is to use a trusted password manager that securely stores your login info. Some services can even conveniently choose and remember strong passwords for you. For more help on how to handle the password issue, read this article from CNET.
Enable multifactor authentication
Two-factor authentication (2FA) asks users to provide more than one form of identification to log into your accounts, such as your mobile phone number. One example involves signing into an account with a password, then receiving a text message or phone call with a code you must enter to log in. Even if your password is stolen, this can prevent criminals from accessing your account without your phone.
Collect mail every day
Some of the ways that criminals can steal your identity are decidedly low-tech. For example, identity thieves can simply read through bank or credit card statements, utility bills, healthcare or tax forms, or pre-approved credit card offers out of your mailbox. Are you going on vacation this summer? Make sure to put a hold on your mail while you’re away to nip this risk in the bud.
Review your credit card and bank account statements regularly
Make sure to consistently review your credit card and bank statements. Someone with your credit card number or bank account information could make small charges to see if they can get away with it. These transactions can easily slip through the cracks without you or your financial institution noticing them.
Shred documents containing personal information before disposing of them
Shred receipts, credit card offers, account statements, and expired credit cards. Dumpster diving might sound like an old-fashioned way of stealing personal information, given the flood of email phishing scams and online data breaches, but criminals still do it because it works. You can also opt out of receiving pre-screened credit card offers through optoutprescreen.com.
Review your credit reports
Be certain to review your credit report to confirm it doesn’t include accounts that you have not opened. You can order it for free from annualcreditreport.com. In addition, subscribing to an identity theft protection service will provide an extra layer of protection and send an alert if it appears your identity might have been stolen.
Freeze your credit
When you freeze your credit file, no one can look at or request your credit report. Therefore, no one (including you) can open an account, apply for a loan, or get a new credit card while your credit is frozen. To freeze your credit, you must contact each of the four credit reporting agencies: Experian, Equifax, Innovis and TransUnion. Credit freezes are free and won’t impact your credit score. They will provide you with a PIN or passcode you can later use if you temporarily lift or stop the credit freeze.
Create an online social security account
With your social security number and other personal information, a criminal can sign up for social security benefits in your name and have the benefits sent to them. If you have not created your online social security account, prevent a criminal from doing it before you by signing up at www.ssa.gov.
Protect your computer
To stay safe from the latest threats, make sure that your operating system software and antivirus software is updated. Antivirus software can prevent hackers from accessing information on your computer and mobile devices. Because criminals can more easily hack outdated systems, keep your software current or set it to update itself automatically.
Remember, the best defense against identity theft is a good offense. Being proactive and taking the steps above can hinder the ability of criminals to steal your identity.