Preventing Identity Theft with Personal Information Protection Tips

Protect Your Personal Information

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Identity theft protection isn't as simple as, say, protecting your car. You can't just install an alarm system, park it in your garage, lock all the doors, and expect it to be there in the morning.

There are any number of things — some tangible, some not so tangible, like the impression you make on people — that have helped to create and establish your identity over the years. While you can usually protect your reputation among your peers and friends simply by being yourself, preventing identity theft requires a bit more work on your part.

What personal information do I need to protect to prevent identity theft?

When it comes to identity theft protection, your primary concern should be "locking down" the personal information that uniquely distinguishes you from anyone else on the planet — your Social Security number, your bank and credit card accounts, even, in some cases, your home address. These are bits and pieces of your overall identity that an ID thief can use to create a whole new identity — and potentially clean out your accounts in the process.

How do I protect my personal information?

Short of moving into a bank vault or installing armed guards at every door and window of your home, there's no way to guarantee that all of your personal information will be safe around the clock. However, there are a few steps that can aid you in preventing identity theft:

Protect your Social Security number. Social Security numbers are an identity thief's Holy Grail, because they're the key to opening many doors. The best way to protect your Social Security number is to memorize it and then store your government-issued Social Security card in a home safe or in a safe deposit box at your local bank. Once you have your number memorized, remember this as well: Only give out your Social Security number if absolutely necessary. Generally speaking, you'll need to provide your Social Security number on job (and sometimes housing) applications, when opening bank, credit card or other financial accounts, or when dealing with the government (particularly at tax time). If you're asked to provide it elsewhere, find out why before handing it over. If the request can't be verified as an authentic need, do not provide your Social Security number.

Use a paper shredding machine. It's not enough to simply throw away old bank statements, unwanted direct-mail solicitations and other materials with identifying information. Dumpster divers can pull those documents out of your garbage and quickly turn them into ID theft gold. Instead, get used to paper shredding, an inexpensive but invaluable way to turn ID theft bait into unusable strips of confetti. Be liberal in your paper shredding, too: An identity thief, for instance, can easily turn a credit card offer that has your correct name and address into a whole new identity. The old adage applies: Better safe than sorry.

Practice Internet safety. When it comes to your personal information, the Internet is only as safe as you allow it to be. Hackers and cyber-thieves can potentially lurk around every e-corner, so you need to be as vigilant as possible to ensure that your unique information remains in your hands alone. If you manage your money over the Internet, follow the strictest online banking safety precautions: Use identity theft-safe passwords; make sure you conduct transactions only on secure pages (look for an "s" after "http" in the address bar and/or a lock icon on the page); and never — repeat, never — share account information or allow unauthorized users to access your account. While you're at it, of course, delete all e-mails from unfamiliar sources, and only make credit card purchases on websites that you trust.

Identity theft remains one of the fastest growing crimes in the country and shows no signs of abating. Given that, identity theft protection will be a lifelong necessity. However, with the proper diligence and a continual awareness of where the biggest threats lay, you can take steps that can help to decrease your risk of falling victim to an identity thief.

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