Chapter 2: Preventing Identity Theft
Taking steps now to reduce the chances you will become a victim is a lot easier and less time-consuming than cleaning up the mess an identity thief leaves behind.
Review Your Credit Report
You should check your credit reports for fraudulent activity at least annually. You can receive one free copy of your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, once year through the Annual Credit Report Request Service. (See Chapter 5 for contact information). You can obtain all three reports at once or stagger your requests throughout the year. If you believe you were a victim of identity theft, you are entitled to additional free reports. (Contact the credit bureaus directly for this.) If you are not currently eligible for free reports, you can purchase them from the credit bureaus for a fee.
When you obtain your reports, look over them carefully for balances that do not seem correct, accounts you never opened, or anything else that seems suspicious. Dispute inaccurate information with the bureaus immediately, and contact the involved creditors (discussed more in Chapter 3).
Guard Your Personal Information
When someone asks you for your information, never hesitate to ask questions or say no if you are uncomfortable. You should only provide personal data when you know how will be used, you are sure the person or company is legitimate, and you are the one who initiated contact.
Check Your Statements
Know your billing cycles, and be sure to review your statements for credit cards, utilities, checking and savings accounts, and other accounts when they are issued. If you see any charges you did not authorize, contact the company immediately. Also contact them if you don’t receive your statement when you are supposed to.
Minimize and Protect Your Mail
Try to reduce the amount of mail you receive containing sensitive information. Many credit card companies, banks, credit unions, utility providers, and other institutions allow you to elect to receive electronic statements only.
Since you may not be able to completely stop the flow of mail containing personal information, be sure to empty your mailbox promptly and not let it sit there for a day or two. If you are going on vacation and there is no one available to pick up your mail, you can request a vacation hold with the post office.
Avoid a False Sense of Security
It is easy to have a sense of security in your home, work, place of worship, or other familiar spot, but keep in mind that many people are victimized by someone they know. (And of course, there may be strangers passing through as well.) Never leave your wallet, statements, or portable electronic devices out in plain sight.
Only Carry With You What You Need
If your wallet or bag is stolen, the less you have in it, the less information the thief has. There is almost never a need to carry your Social Security card with you. Most people don’t need to lug around their checkbook either.
If you are disposing of a statement or something else containing personal information, shred it – don’t just don’t throw it in the trash. Do the same for pre-approval offers. Better yet, opt out of receiving them. (Contact information for doing this is in Chapter 5.)
Protect Your Computer and Smartphone
Use a firewall and anti-virus/anti-spyware software to reduce your computer’s vulnerability to hackers. Make all passwords hard to guess by using a complex combination of numbers and upper and lower case letters. Log off when you leave the room, and don’t leave portable devices unattended. Before disposing of your computer or smartphone, be sure to delete personal information using a "wipe" utility program to overwrite the entire hard drive.
When shopping online, use a secure browser - enter personal and financial information only when there is a "lock" icon on the browser's status bar and look for the URL to read "https" versus "http." Don’t send sensitive personal information via e-mail or download files or open hyperlinks sent by people you don't know.
Consider Extra Protection – Carefully
If you are exceptionally concerned about the possibility of identity theft, you may consider paying for credit monitoring or identity theft insurance – but do so only after carefully reading the fine print and weighing the cost against the benefits. Some of the businesses that offer these services are a scam themselves. Research the company's history and check the Better Business Bureau's complaint log before signing up.
Credit monitoring. A credit monitoring service typically provides regular credit report updates about new inquiries, new accounts, late payments, sudden changes in your credit card balances, and other potentially suspicious activity. You may also be able to access your credit report whenever you want at no additional cost.
Identity theft insurance. If you become victimized by identity theft, this type of insurance reimburses you for the out-of-pocket expenses incurred to clean it up (but not the money that was stolen) and helps you through the process of contacting creditors, writing affidavits, and filing reports.