Identity theft is on the rise in the U.S. as more consumers are providing their personal information through a variety of gateways. In 2016, 15.4 million U.S. consumers were victims of identity theft. The cost to those consumers totaled $16 billion in stolen cash or property compared to $15.3 billion in 2015. Over the past six years, $107 billion has been stolen by identity thieves in the U.S. (2017 Identity Fraud Study).
Taking precautionary steps to protect your personal information can help reduce your risk of identity theft. The Federal Trade Commission has recommended four main ways to protect your identity and lessen your risk from thieves.
1. Secure your Social Security Number
- Ask questions before deciding to share your SSN or your family’s SSN.
- Ask why it is needed, how it will be used, and most importantly, how that person or company will protect your SSN.
- Ask what happens if you decide to not share your SSN.
2. Keep your personal information secure offline
- Lock your financial documents and records in a safe place at home, and lock your wallet or purse in a safe place at work. Better yet, have a safe deposit box to store your social security card, birth certificates, and marriage license.
- Limit what you carry in your purse or wallet. Take only what you need for identification, and limit the credit and debit cards that you carry.
- Shred credit offers, expired credit and debit cards, insurance forms, doctors’ statements, checks, bank statements, and similar information you do not need anymore.
- Destroy labels on prescription bottles and boxes before you throw them out.
- You can opt-out of prescreened offers of credit and insurance by mail. The opt-out can be for five years or permanently. To opt-out call 1-888-567-8688 or go to optoutprescreen.com. Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — the three nationwide credit reporting bureaus — operate the phone number and website.
3. Keep your personal information secure online
- Encrypt your data: Keep your browser secure and when sending information over the internet check that the website has a lock icon on the status bar before submitting information.
- Keep passwords private: Substitute numbers for words or letters (e.g., Philadelphia becomes Ph1la3lph1a). Use strong passwords for all of your accounts. Do not create a master file to save all of your passwords.
- Don’t overshare on social media: Going away on vacation? If you profile is public and you share this information you put yourself at risk. Make all of your social media sites private and never post too much information about yourself.
- Safely dispose of personal information: When throwing away a computer or cell phone, delete all of the personal information that was stored on it, including removing memory cards, contacts, browser history, and photos.
4. Keep your devices secure
- Use security software: Install anti-virus and anti-spyware software on your computer and set preferences to update often.
- Avoid phishing emails: Do not click on links or open files from any e-mail that looks suspicious.
- Wise up with Wi-Fi: Public Wi-Fi helps with your data plan but think twice before sending personal information and especially conducting online banking. Thieves have been stealing more personal information from public wireless networks.
- Lock up your laptop: Store financial information on your laptop only when necessary and lock your laptop in a secure drawer when not using.
You can take all of the recommend steps above and still become a victim of identity theft. Large companies such as Target, Home Depot, J.P. Morgan, and even the IRS have had their databases compromised. So if you do become a victim of identity theft, the Federal Trade Commission recommends these steps:
- File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
- Contact one of the three credit bureaus to place a fraud alert on your credit records.
- Contact all of your financial institutions and close all bank and credit accounts opened or tampered with by the thieves.
The more action you take now to secure your personal identity, the lower the potential for your identity to be stolen.
Kate J. Stewart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215.441.4600.
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