12 Tips to Help Prevent Identity Theft

personal finance tips

There were more than 650,000 instances of reported identity theft in 2019, according to data from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Separate information from Javelin Strategy & Research found that consumers lost almost $17 billion to fraud in the same year.

Concerned you might not be doing enough to prevent identity theft? Check out these tips we’ve collected to help you lead a more secure life and safeguard your information, finances and family. And if you want to learn more about what identity theft is, check out our first article in this series, “What Is Identity Theft?”

1. Know How Identity Theft Happens

In today’s digital world, we have a tendency to automatically associate identity theft with cybercrime. While data breaches are a major source of identity theft, there are other ways it can happen. Focusing on just one possibility may leave you vulnerable in other areas.

So how else can identity theft happen? It can occur through a mix of digital and physical methods, which include—but aren’t limited to—the following:

  • Mail theft
  • Card skimming
  • Email phishing
  • Scams, whether over the phone, on the internet, or in person
  • Bogus verification sites, like those that offer change of address services but aren’t the USPS
  • Outright theft or burglary

Fraudsters are enterprising, if not entirely unscrupulous. Somebody might even dumpster dive and dig through your trash for mail, account statements, receipts or other documents! We don’t want to be alarmist, but it’s important to remember that familial fraud is also common. It’s not always strangers that may take advantage of your personal information.

Be careful of any interactions where information is exchanged or asked for. Knowing your weak points will help you better focus your defensive measures.

2. Never Carry Your Social Security Card

If someone gets a hold of your Social Security card, they have just about free range to impersonate you. Your Social Security number is a critical piece of data and often known only by you. Criminals could use a stolen SSN to open up new debt accounts and otherwise defraud you.

If you have children, keep their Social Security numbers safe as well. According to CNBC, 1 million children were the victims of identity theft in 2017. Thieves may be more likely to take advantage of a child’s SSN because it is less likely to be noticed quickly.

For those reasons, never carry a Social Security card on your person. The risks are just too high. If you’re the victim of a robbery and your card is stashed in your wallet, that’s a golden ticket for a fraudster. Don’t give them the opportunity to come up on this valuable piece of information that plays such a big part in your financial life.

3. Give Your SSN Only to Trusted Entities

When your Social Security number is requested for something like a loan application, be sure that the organization is totally legitimate. It’s important that you proceed extremely carefully when giving your Social Security number to anyone.

This is less of an issue for in-person transactions, as you likely know and trust your local bank branch or credit union representative. If it’s anyone else, be sure to do your due diligence. Maybe even require a first introduction before giving over any information in a follow-up.

Online, there’s a greater chance that a business is less-than-reputable. Websites can be faked quite convincingly. One way to make sure you’re safe online is that the beginning of the URL begins with “https.” The “s” at the end indicates it’s a secure website.

In the same vein as we recommend never carrying your physical card, never ever send your SSN in an email or text. These communications can be accessed and used to defraud you later.

4. Shred Documents

It’s not always raccoons who enjoy a bit of trash. In fact, once you put your trash can out on the street, it’s public property and anyone could go through it. If you’re throwing away important documents with personally identifying information, criminals can steal that information or use it to access other accounts.

Buy a shredder and shred all documents that include sensitive information. These may include bank statements, mailed credit offers, receipts, medical bills, canceled or voided checks, and junk mail. The FTC even recommends shredding paystubs after you’ve checked them against your W-2.

Also shred expired bank or credit cards, as well as driver’s licenses.

5. Don’t Neglect Your Mail

All sorts of personal information appears in your physical mail. Credit card solicitations, utility bills with your bank account number, or other marketing offers contain personally identifiable information.

Retrieve your mail on a daily basis, especially if your mailbox is at the end of a driveway. If you’re heading  out of town for business or a vacation, arrange for a neighbor or friend—someone you trust—to retrieve your mail for you and keep it in a safe location. Even better, place a hold through the USPS itself.

6. Monitor Your Credit Report

Identity thieves often aim to defraud consumers by manipulating their credit. You can prevent this by keeping an active eye on your credit reports.

You’re entitled to three free credit reports each year, one each from the three reporting bureaus, so use them to ensure everything is on the level with your credit. Currently, credit reports are being offered weekly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a condition that will last until April 2022.

At any other time, you might want to stagger the credit reports, like requesting one every four months. This allows you to better monitor your credit year-round. Keep in mind that when you request your credit report, your credit score won’t be included. You have to request your scores from the credit bureaus separately.

ExtraCredit makes the process easier by giving you access to your three credit reports plus 28 FICO® scores all in one place. Sign up for ExtraCredit and get additional features like $1 million identity theft insurance in case you are a victim of fraud!

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7. Don’t Use Public Wi-Fi

Unsecured Wi-Fi spots can be traps sprung by criminals who aim to digitally pocket information from your phone. They might even attempt to break into your account and lock you out.

Look for connections that are secure or official, and be especially cautious if you’re in an unfamiliar area or foreign location.

8. Call Back Unknown Numbers

If you feel a situation is questionable or someone is being deceptive, don’t surrender your personal information over the phone. Continuous requests for information and an inability to take “no” for an answer are massive red flags.

Keep this in mind when you’re on the phone with someone who claims to be from your bank, or if you receive an email from the electricity company, but it’s sent from an unfamiliar address. Always ask why this information is necessary.

If you’re not satisfied, decline to answer and follow up later to make sure the request was legitimate. For example, call back using the contact number you see listed on a site, not from the phone of the recent caller.

9. Create and Manage Strong Passwords

Passwords are an everyday part of life. You need one to access your email, streaming account, or phone. However, this makes password credentials a primary target of cybercriminals.

When creating strong passwords, include uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. Also, avoid using personal information that is easy to remember but also easy to find out. Think twice before choosing a maiden name, address, or favorite movie.

You can use a password manager to create strong passwords and securely store them. This removes much of the risk of you having to create, remember, and enter long, complicated passwords

10.  Utilize Two-Factor Authentication

Many services and phone apps use two-factor authentication or biometric fingerprints to ensure only you are accessing your devices.

Often, this means you’ll be sent a text message with a one-time code so you can log in. Sometimes you might be prompted with a notification asking a yes-or-no “Is this you?” question. This helps ensure that if someone has cracked your password, they can’t log in without access to your cellphone and the TFA code sent to it.

Fingerprint and face scans are also increasingly being used, as they are even harder to falsify. Think about opting in whenever such security measures are offered, as they make for strong deterrents to identity theft.

11. Be Careful of What You Post to Social Media

Criminals may also trawl social profiles looking for personally identifiable information, as well as clues to passwords or security questions.

For that reason, think twice before you post next about your first dog, the street you grew up on, your first car, or other potential answers to security questions.

It goes without saying you should never post financial information or pictures of bank/credit cards, statements and other materials. You should also avoid posting about being away from home for any extended period of time. This gives thieves a better opportunity to access your physical and digital information.

12. Place a Freeze or Fraud Alert on Your Credit Report

Place a freeze on your credit report if you’re concerned about suspicious activity or you learned that your information was accessed as part of a larger data breach. Doing so will stop lenders from pulling your file, which in turn prevents criminals from applying for and taking out loans or opening credit cards in your name.

If something does happen, you can place a fraud alert on your file, which can stop more fraud from occurring.

Get Help with Preventing Identity Theft

Protecting your identity is a 24/7/365 type of thing. Yet we all have jobs and personal lives.

If you need help with safeguarding your information and credit, sign up for ExtraCredit. Our paid product has tons of features, including dark web monitoring, proactive SSN alerts, and $1 million in identity theft protection. You can get the total ID theft prevention package for only $24.99/month.

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DISCLAIMER. The information provided in this article does not, and is not intended to be, legal, financial or credit advice; instead, it is for general informational purposes only.