If you’ve never suffered identity theft, consider yourself lucky. Millions of people are victimized on an annual basis and you don’t want to become part of the statistics.
But if you aren’t actively doing something to prevent identity theft, you could be playing with fire.
Identity Theft: A Major Problem
The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) recently released its annual report on data breaches. The report a total of 1,579 data breaches exposed roughly 179 million records. That represents a 44 percent increase in breaches and 389 percent increase in records exposed.
The IRTC report also shows that 14.2 million credit card numbers (an 88 percent year-over-year increase) and nearly 158 million Social Security numbers (an 800 percent increase) were accessed by someone other than their rightful owners.
The most common types of identity theft are credit card fraud, employment or tax-related fraud, phone or utilities fraud, bank fraud, loan or lease fraud, and government documents or benefits fraud. Consumers reported an estimated $905 million in total losses due to these kinds of invasion in 2017 — a figure that will likely increase this year.
Six Tips for Protecting Your Identity
The average person goes through daily life assuming immunity to identity theft, when the reality is that the person is walking around with a big target on his or her back.
It’s probably impossible to make yourself utterly immune to identity theft, but there are some smart and practical steps one may take to dramatically reduce the chances of being compromised. Here are five solid tips.
1. Keep Personal Documents in a Safe
Where do you store your personal information and documents? Most people either don’t know where some of their most important documents are, or they have them stashed at the bottom of a closet in a folder that’s difficult to locate.
But if you want to keep your personal records safe, they need to be in a … well … safe. This is smart for a number of reasons.
Not only does a safe protect against theft, but many are also waterproof and fireproof. If you can find one that fits in between wall studs, you can tuck it neatly away behind a hanging picture.
Documents you should keep in a safe include: birth certificates, Social Security cards, marriage license, car titles, loan information, credit card documents, and so on.
2. Dispose of Personal Information Properly
It’s much more likely that someone will compromise your identity by picking through your trash than by entering your home and sifting through a filing cabinet. Thus, in addition to storing confidential information properly, you also need to make sure you dispose of personal information you no longer need.
Never toss tax documents, bills, credit card applications, or documents with personal information directly into your trash or recycling bin. You need either to burn it or to shred it. Most individuals and firms choose the latter.
A good shredder — one that can rip through paper, staples, and paperclips — is perfect for the purpose. It will save you the time of having to go through and prep documents before discarding them.
3. Monitor Your Credit
There’s no reason not to monitor your credit on a monthly basis through a site such as Credit Karma or Credit Sesame. These services are free and enable you to check your credit status in 30 seconds or less.
You also should be ordering your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies every year. Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion will all give you one free credit report per year … so don’t miss out on that.
4. Subscribe to an Identity Theft Protection Service
Although it’s smart to check your credit report on a regular basis, that might not be enough. If you want to avoid being compromised, it may be worth your while to pay a few dollars a month for an identity theft protection and/or monitoring service.
There are numerous services like these on the market, and your protection is only as good as the company that provides it (and the information to which it has access). “To find out if your information is being misused, identity monitoring services must check databases that collect different types of information to see if they contain new or inaccurate information about you,” the FTC explains.
“For example, they might check the National Change of Address database to see if anyone is trying to redirect your mail. The effectiveness of the monitoring will depend on factors like the kinds of databases the service checks, how good the databases are at collecting information, and how often the service checks each database.”
5. Don’t Leave Mail in Your Mailbox
A practical piece of advice is never to leave mail in your mailbox for longer than necessary. Whether you’re sending or receiving mail, you want to keep the time it spends in the actual mailbox to a minimum.
Criminals can steal credit card applications and other confidential pieces of mail and use them to open accounts using your identity.
6. Know How to Respond
In the unfortunate case that your identity gets compromised or stolen, a fast response will limit the damage and help restore order in the most efficient manner. As Experian explains, the first step is to place a fraud alert on your credit report (and possibly freeze it).
Take an Active Role in Preventing Identity Theft
Nobody is going to protect your identity for you. If you want to reduce your risk of being compromised, you need to do something. This means heeding the advice outlined in this article and staying constantly abreast of new developments in identity theft prevention.