Identity theft remains a constant threat to modern society. A September 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Justice states1, “an estimated 17.6 million persons, or 7% of all U.S. residents age 16 or older, were victims of one or more incidents of identity theft in 2014.” These statistics may be hard to believe, but they reflect how troubling and legitimate the situation has become.
Although this crime can affect anyone, there are many ways to reduce your risk of becoming a victim of identity theft. Professional identity thieves are only getting craftier so it's important to make yourself aware of defense tactics and avoid becoming the next victim.
Here are 6 simple yet effective ways to protect yourself from identity theft:
1. Be cautious shopping online
Cyber criminals target retail sites for one simple purpose – stealing credit and debit card information. Before you start typing in your information on a checkout page, verify two things: 1.) there is a “lock” next to the web address and 2.) there is an “s” in the beginning of the web address (https://). If the checkout page does not have both of these security measures, your information may be at risk.
Also, remember to be very careful when shopping on public Wi-Fi networks. Criminals can easily access the data passed through these networks and steal the financial information you submit. Remember – your phone is a computer, too. It is just as vulnerable to Wi-Fi theft as a tablet, laptop or desktop.
2. Don’t open suspicious emails
Phishing, a scam where criminals send phony emails, has been around for decades. It is called phishing because they are “fishing for information.” Their goal is to trick you into giving up personal information through some type of electronic communication. For instance, if you download a file from a phishing email, you can end up with malicious software (“malware”) being installed on your computer. This can then lead to your personal and financial info being stolen.
To avoid getting hooked by phishing, here are some basic safety tips:
- Protect your computer with a firewall, antivirus or antispyware software
- Never download files, click links or open attachments from unknown senders
- Look for misspellings, excessive capitalization and other obvious content errors
- Use a spam-blocker for incoming emails
- Never enter information on a pop-up screen
3. Beware of phone scams
Phone scams have also become more deceitful over the years. One of the most popular scams is posing as the IRS and intimidating people to providing sensitive information. According to The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration2, over 736,000 IRS scam contacts have been reported since October 2013 with nearly 4,550 victims. Collectively, they have scammed victims for over $23 million over this time.
Criminals can also pose a bank, credit card issuer, police organization or any other company that may try to coerce people into giving up information. Be confident and defensive with your personal information. If someone calls and asks for sensitive details of your life, demand a written request through the mail. If things escalate or start to get unmanageable over the phone, get the employee’s name and research the company afterward to make sure the request is legitimate.
4. Examine your financial statements and credit report
Keeping a close eye on your monthly statements can help you spot clues of potential identity theft. Analyze your transactions for suspicious charges or withdrawals without your consent. Be aware that the amount does not have to be shocking. A common tactic for identity thieves is to steal smaller, typically unnoticed amounts over time. If the victim isn’t paying close attention to their statements, they may never notice.
The same applies to your credit report. If you don’t read through your credit report at least once a year, you could be missing errors and fraudulent activity that may negatively affect your financial situation. Federal law allows every person to receive a free copy of their credit report every 12 months from each of the three major credit reporting companies. To obtain a free copy of all three credit reports, go to annualcreditreport.com.
5. Shred your paperwork
“Dumpster diving” is a phrase often used for salvaging food from the trash. However, it is also another way for criminals to steal personal information. People often discard personal paperwork in the trash without second thought. Bank statements, credit card bills and pre-approved credit card mailers are opened, read and thrown away with the belief they will vanish forever. Not the case.
In the wrong hands, the private information in those documents could easily result in bank fraud, loan fraud, credit fraud or tax fraud. They say that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Make sure you shred all the paperwork you don’t need to ensure your dumpster is only filled with useless trash.
6. Lock all personal documents in a safe
All of the important documents you possess, whether personal or professional, should always remain locked away. 21st century identity thieves may prefer cybercrime but that doesn’t mean you should keep your physical documents unsecured. Locking them away not only keeps them protected, it also helps keep you organized.
Here is a quick list of documents you should have locked away at all times:
- Birth certificate
- Social security card
- Tax returns
- Bank records
Stay on your guard
Identity theft is an ever-present threat so you cannot afford to let your guard down. By understanding the tactics of these criminals, you can stay one step ahead and avoid becoming the next victim. Make sure you stay vigilant and don’t hesitate to dig deeper if you suspect your identity has been compromised.
If you believe you are a victim of identity theft, please visit the Federal Trade Commission website to report your case.