- Opt out of credit card pre-approval offers. Those little letters saying you've been pre-approved for some fabulous card can be a gold mine for an identity thief. Call or write the credit companies and remove yourself from their mailing lists (check the fine print; information is usually included on the back of each offer).
- Destroy documents that could be used to access your credit. In 2006, Rob Cockerham decided to see if a torn-up and taped-back-together credit card application would be accepted. To up the ante, he requested that the new card go to a completely different address, and provided a cellphone number for account activation. Less than a month later, Chase approved the MasterCard application anyway. Bottom line: It's not enough to tear up a credit card application and toss it in the trash, as most credit-card companies suggest you do. Use the mailings for kindling in your fireplace, or shred the documents finely.
- Check your credit report regularly. The Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 entitles all US residents to receive a free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) every year; you can get yours online at www.annualcreditreport.com or by calling 877-322-8228. Want to check more frequently? For a fee, credit-monitoring services allow you to access your credit report quickly and often. Family Secure, which is part of Experian, offers a great plan that monitors your entire family's personal information for signs of credit-related activity; for $19.95 per month, they'll send you an alert if anything pops up, help you resolve any disputes, and allow you unlimited access to your Experian credit report and credit score.
- Don't give out your personal information. There's no reason to print your Social Security number on your checks, and most states allow you to use some other number for your drivers license. Never give anyone your social security number, credit card number, checking account number, or any other banking information over the phone unless you've initiated the call (this applies to catalog shopping as well). If you need to provide sensitive information online, make sure you're on a secure connection (look for "https://" in the address field). Never send that information in an email, and never EVER post any of it online -- not even your full address and telephone number or date of birth on your resume (once published online, it's public record and accessible by anyone).
- Monitor your credit card statements. Be sure to give the bill a once-over before you pay it, stash it, or destroy it. Unauthorized charges are easy to overlook, but could be early signs of identity theft. If a bill doesn't arrive when it's supposed to, contact the company right away; some identity thieves reroute your existing accounts to new addresses before opening new accounts using your information.
- Don't reply to emails from people you don't know asking for personal information. It's called "phishing," and it's a scam. you hit "reply," even just to tell them to stop emailing you, you've confirmed that your email address is valid and left yourself open to more scam email offers. Also, beware of phone calls phishing for information, like the so-called "Jury Duty" scam (and others).
- Don't leave your bills in your mailbox. If you've left a bill there to be mailed, and someone other than the mail carrier takes it, you've just given away everything an identity thief needs to commit fraud using your name. Mail anything containing your personal information by dropping it into a secure post office drop box instead, or pay them online via a secure connection.
- Create hard-to-guess passwords. The more complex the password, the less likely someone else will be able to figure it out and access your account. Avoid using obvious or easily obtained information like the last four digits of your social security number, your phone number, your birth date, or your name. Whenever possible, use a mix of numbers, symbols, and both upper- and lower-case letters in your password or Personal Identification Number (PIN).
- Never take your Social Security card with you. There's no need to carry that little card anywhere, ever. Memorize the number, and leave the card at home. If the number appears on any other cards you use (a Medicare card, health insurance ID, or other membership card) scratch it out or obliterate it with a permanent marker.
- Be careful when using your credit card or your ATM card. Don't let your card out of your sight when you travel -- it's too easy for someone to record your card number before they give your card back to you. Avoid using free-standing ATMs in public places -- tiny cameras can easily capture your card number and PIN, and some machines can be rigged to skim your account information; your best bet is to use a cash machine inside a bank or a well-known establishment.
The best way to handle identity theft is to minimize the chances of it happening to you. Here are 10 ways you can protect yourself and your family: