How You Can Prevent Identity Theft

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To prevent identity theft is becoming an increasing priority in the United States as the cost and frequency of identity theft crimes continue to grow. With personal, identifying data being stolen in the past few years from information clearinghouses, credit card issuers, and even the Department of Defense, more and more of us want to know: What can I do to prevent identity theft?

What can I do to prevent identity theft?

While there is currently no foolproof method to eliminate the possibility of identity theft, there are steps for preventing identity theft and/or for easing the pain it can inflict on your finances and your life.

Steps You Can Take to Prevent Identity Theft

  • Protect documents that contain information unique to you, from insurance policies and mortgage loan paperwork to wills, retirement account statements and much more. Store your important documents securely, either at your bank or at home. Keep an eye on any document that contains personal information, though, especially credit card receipts; a discarded credit card receipt offers thieves an easy way to break into your life.
  • Shred papers that contain sensitive information. In addition to outdated financial documents, be sure to destroy credit card offers and other mailings that thieves can use to open accounts in your name.
  • Never give out personal information during a phone call that you didn't initiate. If a company claims that it needs your personal information, ask for a call-back phone number, and be sure to verify both the number and the legitimacy of the company before calling back.
  • Use a locked mailbox. Thieves can steal credit card offers from your mailbox to create accounts in your name. They can also use unguarded mailboxes to pick up purchases made in your name.
  • Never give out your Social Security number over the phone, and don't put that number or your phone number on your checks. If your state or medical insurance carrier uses your Social Security number as your identifying number, ask them to issue you a different identifying number.
  • Carry only the credit or debit card(s) you need, and memorize your Social Security number rather than carrying your card with you.
  • Don't use family names or birthdays as passwords or PINs. Always guard the keypad when entering your PIN in a public ATM to prevent identity theft by a "shoulder surfer."
  • Monitor your credit card and bank statements. If you find any activity that you can't explain, investigate it immediately.

Outside Sources That Can Help You Prevent Identity Theft

  • Monitor your credit reports from Experian, Equifax and TransUnion continuously to look for changes (e.g., new inquiries, change-of-address requests or newly opened accounts). If you see any discrepancies or activities that you can't explain, begin an immediate inquiry into the matter.
  • Hire a reliable firm to search public databases for additional signs of identity theft if you've been victimized. These firms will comb the public records for information that connects your name to activities and lists you may not be aware of, such as:
    • Criminal activity that shows up in your county's records and certain federal watch lists;
    • Department of Motor Vehicle records in your state;
    • Unknown addresses; and
    • banking transactions that have been tagged as fraudulent.
  • Install software programs that can protect your personal computers from spyware, hackers, viruses and other Internet threats. Then, stay ahead of the latest security threats by updating your software regularly.
  • Make sure you have identity theft insurance. While it won't prevent identity theft, it can protect you against the high costs of restoring your identity, including the loss of wages you may incur while trying to reclaim your identity, as well as the cost of legal fees and other restoration steps.

It comes down to this: Paying close attention to your personal and financial records and other identifying information is your best weapon in your quest for identity theft protection.

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