The news is full of stories about thieves hacking into banks, credit card companies and health insurers and stealing personal information that can be used to commit identity theft. If you proactively protect your personal and financial information, however, you can decrease the likelihood that you'll become a victim.
Protect Yourself Online
If you shop, bank or pay bills online, you can protect your personal and financial information in a number of ways.
- Choose strong passwords and change them every few months. Although it's easy to use your dog's name as your password for all your accounts, that's not a secure strategy. You should choose a password that can't be guessed if someone gets access to information like your birthday, hometown or mother's name. A strong password should include letters, numbers and symbols. Jane1990 is a weak password, while J#a90n!e is a stronger choice. The strongest passwords are random combinations of letters, numbers and symbols.
- Get online securely. Be sure to use an anti-virus program that includes spyware protection and update the virus definitions weekly. Your computer should have the firewall turned on, and you should download any security updates for your operating systems when they become available. If you use Wi-Fi in a public place, check to make sure it's an encrypted, secure network. Don't use auto-login features for websites or financial apps on your smartphone or tablet. If someone gets their hands on your device, they can access your accounts. And never respond to emails asking for personal information such as your Social Security number, account numbers or passwords.
- Don't overshare. Avoid posting too much personal information on social media. Thieves can pick up that information and use it to answer the challenge questions banks and shopping sites use to make sure it's really you logging into an account.
Keep Your Information Safe Offline
Be aware of what personal information you carry with you and share with others. To safeguard sensitive information:
- Don't carry your Social Security card. If your wallet is lost or stolen, someone could use the information to open new accounts or commit medical identity fraud. Don't put your Social Security number on checks either.
- Pick up new checks at the bank. If you don't have a locking mailbox, new checks could be stolen. If possible, arrange to pick your checks up at your bank or credit union.
- Be mail savvy. If you'll be out of town, have the post office hold your mail. Mail bills or letters that contain personal information at the post office or a U.S. Postal Service mailbox. If you receive credit card offers in the mail, shred them before disposing of them. Know when you should receive bills and financial statements and, if they're late, contact your bank or credit card company. Thieves often change the mailing address on this type of mail as part of the process of stealing your identity.
- Check your credit report. Once a year, you can get a free credit report from all three major national credit bureaus at www.annualcreditreport.com. Check for new accounts you didn't open or any address or personal information changes that you didn't initiate.
It takes a little effort, but protecting your personal information is the best way to prevent identity theft.