Identity theft is more common than you may think. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 16.6 million people age 16 and older experienced identity theft in 2012.
If you want to prevent identity theft, protecting your personal information is a must. The Department of Justice recommends remembering the acronym " SCAM."
- Be stingy about giving out your personal information.
- Check your financial information regularly.
- Ask for a copy of your credit report regularly. (Remember, you get a free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus once per year. Use AnnualCreditReport.com to get your free report.)
- Maintain careful records of your financial accounts.
Here are three steps to keep your personal information safe.
Step 1: Safeguard Your Personal Information Offline
"Common sense will take you a long way," says Fred H. Cate, professor of law and the founder and former director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University.
In addition to storing important financial documents and records that you need to keep under lock and key, it pays to shred mail and other documents that include your Social Security number, credit card number, or other account numbers.
And always be aware of where you keep your wallet, purse, checks, extra credit cards, and other similar items, especially in the home or office, notes Cate.
"A large percentage of identify fraud is committed by friends and co-workers," he says.That makes it essential to log off of your computer when you leave your home or office.
Plus, the Federal Trade Commission suggests opting out of prescreened offers of credit and insurance by mail. You can do that by visiting optoutprescreen.com.
Step 2: Secure Your Online Information
It's a little more difficult to protect your personal information online. Once your sensitive personal information is available online, it's pretty much out of your control.
But once again, common sense can take you a long way, notes Cate. "Don't share personal information with sites you don't know or don't trust," he says.
And watch out for phishing emails – emails from unusual individuals or companies that ask for sensitive personal information.
Keep in mind that the passwords you use should be strong and never reused on multiple sites. Google advises using a long password made up of numbers, letters and symbols. For instance, passwords such as '123456' and 'password' are bad examples of passwords.
In this day and age, it's also important not to overshare on social media. You should never post information such as your Social Security number, date of birth, or your full name in a public place, according to the Better Business Bureau. Also, make sure to check your privacy settings on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks.
But don't worry too much about your Social Security Number on official forms from trusted sources. "SSNs were never meant to be secret," says Cate.
In fact, they are regularly accessed by thousands of entities for tax, payroll and identification purposes.
"The problem became when some institutions, especially banks, began using them as default passwords. That has largely stopped today, and in many cases is regulated by law," notes Cate.
Step 3: Don't Panic
"Most crimes - about 85% - labeled 'identity theft' are actually credit or debit card or bank account fraud, for which individual consumers are never liable," says Cate.
According to a study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 14 percent of identity theft victims experienced out-of-pocket losses of $1 or more, and half of those victims suffered losses of less than $100.
"One reason for this is that that industry has gotten really good at detecting and blocking fraudulent transactions. (Sometimes, like when traveling in a foreign country, they may even block legitimate transactions just because they look fraudulent)," says Cate.
But it's important to realize that, both online and offline, responding to identity fraud is as important preventing it in the first place.
Not only should you check account statements regularly, says Cate, but you should also challenge any transaction you don't recognize.