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Identity Theft: What You Need to Know to Protect Yourself

All worked up about identify theft? Don’t be. This post concludes my four-part series on identity theft in recognition of “Identity Theft Protection Awareness Week” which is coming up. It’s a revision of a post I did a while back originally titled “Identity Theft: How to Prevent it and Stop Worrying.” Some comments on the original post raised a good point—you can’t ever totally “prevent” identity. There’s always a chance your identity will be compromised. You can, however, take steps to protect your identity every day.

Have you ever heard the old advice: “If you can’t do something about it, don’t worry about? If you can do something about it, then do it.” This holds true for identity theft. There’s always a chance criminals can get their hands on your credit card numbers or, worse, your Social Security number, and run up fraudulent charges or debts in your name. It’s not worth losing sleep over as long as you’re taking a few simple steps to make scam artists’ jobs harder.

Identity Theft Prevention

Although about 9 million people fall victim to identity theft every year, the reality is that if you’re careful, the chances an ID thief will specifically target you and find your social security and bank account number are slim. The chances you’ll screw up and broadcast your personal information to the world, however, are higher. Take these simple steps to reduce the chance you’ll be a victim.

Only Give Out Sensitive Information When Absolutely Necessary

The majority of online identity theft occurs from phishing attempts, when consumers click a link in an email and then provide their personal information to a Website that appears to be their financial institution but actually belongs to a hacker. No legitimate bank will ever ask you to confirm account information online—especially in an email. If you receive an email and want to visit your bank—type your bank’s name into Google rather than clicking the link. Read more about how to spot and avoid phishing scams.

Of course, there are times you need to give out financial information and even your Social Security number. Just make sure that anytime you do, you trust the person you’re giving it to. If you’re online, make sure the Website where you’ll provide your info starts with “https://”. That “s” means the page is secure.

Guard Your Social Security Number

Your Social Security number is the key to your credit profile and your financial identity. Once somebody has it, they don’t need much else to take out a loan or credit card in your name. Make sure that you shred any documents that contain your social security number—and never give it out except for financial or employment purposes.

When filing out a paper form, ask if writing down your Social Security number is essential. Since many forms are immediately inputted into computers anyway, maybe you can simply dictate your number for them to enter and not leave a paper trail. Finally, some schools and medical facilities still use your Social Security number as your account number. Always ask if you can substitute another number instead.

Finally, do not routinely carry your Social Security card or any other card that contains this number in your wallet—lock them up at home.

Use Multiple Passwords

Though having one password for all of your online accounts is convenient, it’s a big security risk. Use at least a handful of passwords for your different bank and credit card accounts so if somebody somehow gets into one, the others are protected. See the comments on Seven Signs You’re At-Risk for Identity Theft for some ways to easily store and remember multiple passwords.

Report Lost Documents or Credit Cards Immediately

The second you notice you’ve lost a credit card, your driver’s license, or other important documents, report them lost or stolen. The hassle of getting new documents is far better than the hassle of fighting fraudulent charges or repairing your falsely damaged credit.

Keep a Close Eye On Your Credit Report

If an identity thief opens a bogus loan or credit card in your name, there are only two ways to find out: Check your own credit score, or wait for a bill collector to come calling to collect a debt that isn’t yours—but is in your name. You do not want to find out you’ve been a victim of identity theft this way! By then, your credit is already ruined and you will have a long, long battle to convince collectors the debt isn’t yours and to clear your name. Some victims never do.

That’s why checking your credit report regularly is so important: You can catch fraudulent accounts before they ruin your credit. You’re entitled to check each of your three credit bureau reports completely free, once a year, at annualcreditreport.com. Other services with free trials provide alternative ways to access your credit reports and scores.

Still Worried?

Identity theft protection services cost about $10, but they insure you against the unlikely but potentially crippling effects of identity theft. If you have assets and a sound credit score to protect, compare identity theft protection services and consider enrolling today.

This article is the last in a series of four posts on ways you can protect your identity and financial information. For more on protecting yourself from identity theft, check out ProtectYourIDNow.org, a non-profit Website featuring lots of useful resources.

Published or updated on October 16, 2009

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About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.


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  1. TAMMY says:

    I had my soc # stolen while I was incapasated with pain for two years . the person who stole my identity was at my house supposedly taking care of me when my husband was out of town on work, moral don’t trust ant one this person had opened so many accounts under my name ran them up, discarded and “avoided” my knowing for two years while she bought a new home and car and sold things she bought on ebay>Istill have things on my credit report I cant get rid of ,,,,and she was sent from my church as someone responsable who needed some help to get through times thats why we let her come to into our house>>BIG BIG FAT MISTAKE

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