Identity theft is a big problem. How big? Consider this: In 2015, about 13 million Americans were victimized, with a total fraud amount of $15 billion, according to Javelin Strategy & Research. That’s a lot of victims, and a lot of money. How can you protect yourself from becoming a statistic?
Here are a few suggestions:
Secure your Social Security number. Identity thieves eagerly seek Social Security numbers — so don’t give out yours to anyone who asks for it. In fact, as a general rule, be reluctant to give it out at all. Always ask whomever you’re dealing with if he or she will accept another form of identification, or at the very least will take just the last four digits of your number. And never carry your Social Security card with you.
Shred credit card offers and bank statements. If you’re not going to apply for the credit cards offered to you, shred the offers. Identity thieves have been known to go through garbage, fill out credit card offers and take advantage of them. At the same time, shred your bank and brokerage statements – and any other statement containing personal or financial information.
Study your credit card bills and checking account statements. Question any credit card charge or checking account activity you don’t recognize as your own.
Don’t give out your credit card number unless you’re initiating a purchase. Many of us shop online. As long as you’re dealing with a reputable merchant who uses a secure site — i.e., one that has “https” in the web address — you should be fairly confident that your credit card information will be protected. Never give out your credit card number to people or businesses who, unsolicited, try to sell you something over the phone or Internet.
Protect your passwords. Do you use a password to log onto your computer? If so, don’t share it with anyone, outside perhaps your most trusted family members. And use a strong password – one that doesn’t contain your real name or even a complete word that could be used to identify you. Also, it doesn’t hurt to periodically change your password, whether it’s for your computer logon or for entry to any of your financial or consumer accounts.
Even after taking these steps, you could still run into identity theft. That’s why you need to watch for certain signs, such as the arrival of unexpected credit cards or account statements, denials of credit for no clear reason, or calls or letters regarding purchases you didn’t make. If any of these things happen to you, you may want to place a “fraud alert” on your credit reports and review them carefully. Three national credit-reporting companies – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – keep records of your credit history. If someone has misused your personal or financial information, contact one of the companies and ask for an initial fraud alert on your credit report. A fraud alert is free, but you must provide proof of your identity. And the company you call must tell the other companies about your alert. (For more information on placing a fraud alert, visit the website of any of the three companies.)
You can help preserve your good name from those who want to misuse it – so, stay vigilant.