According to recent government reports, almost 12 million adults in the U.S were victims of identity theft last year. These crimes ranged in seriousness from unauthorized use of a credit card number, all the way to using stolen identities to buy a car or rent a home. Here are some basic steps you should take to protect your identity and your finances.
● Protect your Social Security number. This is the most important thing you can do to prevent identity theft. Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet or purse, and never give out your Social Security number to anyone who calls or emails with a request for your personal information.
● Protect the passwords you use on your computer. Make sure your computer passwords are protected and unique. Try to use at least eight characters containing a minimum of one upper case, one lower case, one numeral and one special character, such as # or ?. Be sure to password-protect your smartphone, too.
● Go over your credit reports regularly. Visit www.annualcreditreport.com for a credit report from each of the three major reporting agencies, Equifax, Transunion, and Experian. Review them to see if there is any suspicious activity. You may receive one free report from each agency every year.
● Don’t just throw away trash, shred it. Shred documents and applications containing personal information before you throw them away. Tip: You can remove your name from unsolicited credit and insurance offers at www.optoutprescreen.com. Be aware that home or office shredders aren’t secure enough, since the information can be put back together easily. (Even old uniforms need to be shredded, since they have potential to be misused.)The best way to be safe is to use a secure paper shredding service. If you are in the Los Angeles area, call SAFESHRED for a free consultation.
● If you suspect ID theft, respond immediately. You may monitor how your credit cards are being used by visiting the cards’ websites. You can also set a notification for purchases that go over a certain ampunt. Any time your card charged over that amount, you’ll be notified by email or text. Most credit cards don’t charge for this service, which adds an additional layer of protection.
● Think about other ways to pay. If you have a debit card with a Visa or MasterCard logo on it, there should be no liability for fraud charges, the same way a credit card is protected. But while you have thirty days in which to report unauthorized use of a credit card, with debit cards that window is only two days. If you don’t like using credit cards, use cash instead. You’ll be guaranteed against credit or debit card fraud, and spend less, too.
● You may freeze your credit. A credit freeze will stop anyone from setting up a new line of credit in your name. If you don’t have any major purchases coming up and don’t plan to apply for other cards, freezing your credit is an option. And when necessary, you can “thaw” your credit again for a small fee – and re-freeze it when you’re ready.
An additional avenue would be to have your credit monitored with a service like creditkarma.com, which provides a Transunion credit score for no charge. It’s also a useful site for looking at your accounts and learning how to better your credit score.
For more information about identity theft and what to do if you are a victim, call the Federal Trade Commission at (877) 438-4338 or go to www.ftc.gov/bcp/menus/consumer/data.shtm.