Identity theft can happen to anyone. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that 9 million Americans have their identity stolen every year. According to the US Department of Justice (DOJ), a victim of identity theft on average loses about $1,000, though some experience damages in the millions.
Why would anyone want to steal your identity? Thieves can use your personal information to:
- Open new credit cards
- Charge purchases to your existing credit cards
- Take out auto loans in your name
- Claim your tax refunds
- Open new cell phone accounts
- Submit fraudulent insurance claims
…and more. Not only can identity theft cause financial loss and stress, it can take months or even years to stop fraudulent activities and clear your name. Identity theft can negatively affect your credit report, cause employment issues, and impact your ability to get loans and open credit cards.
Clearly, stopping ID theft is important. Taking steps to protect your personal information can save you time, money, and a lot of frustration. To reduce your risk of identity theft, follow these tips:
- Place fraud alerts on your credit report: A fraud alert can be placed on your credit report with any of the major credit bureaus – TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax. Placing a fraud alert with one credit bureau automatically enables the alert for the other bureaus, too. A fraud alert notifies third parties that they should take extra caution in verifying your identity, such as calling you directly. Fraud alerts do not impact your credit score and they are free. If you suspect ID theft or are at high risk of fraud, a fraud alert on your credit report can help you stay ahead of any issues.
- Monitor for stolen personal information: Unfortunately, data is stolen on the Internet every day. Personal data including social security numbers, credit card numbers, email addresses, phone numbers, birthdays, driver’s licenses, and more are all collected and sold on the dark web. Not many of us have the time or skill to track down our stolen information, so enabling dark web monitoring can help you stay aware of when websites you frequent have had data breaches that put you at risk of identity theft. Turn on dark web monitoring so that you know when to update passwords and keep a sharper eye out for fraudulent activity.
- Keep your devices clean and up to date: Be sure to regularly apply updates to your software and hardware, as they often contain important security fixes. Regularly clear your browser cache to remove cookies. Set a reminder in your calendar once or twice a year to remove apps and extensions you’re no longer using, check your privacy permissions across your accounts, update passwords, and run a security scan of your devices. By keeping your devices clean and patching security issues, you’re eliminating vulnerabilities that thieves can exploit to steal your personal information.
- Stay suspicious of people asking for information: Look carefully at links, attachments, and requests for information. Be cautious about unsolicited communication, both from friends and strangers. If you’re unsure, ask them for more information – and let them know if their account seems to be hacked. Do not give anyone personal information over the phone, especially if someone calls you claiming to be tech support, the bank, or the IRS.
- Regularly review accounts and statements: Before paying credit card bills, review all charges since the last statement. When you see medical bills, look closely at charges and invoice details. Check bank accounts and other financial accounts regularly, monitoring for any transactions you did not initiate. Shred physical documents when no longer needed. Request your free annual credit report to look for issues. The sooner you spot anything suspicious, the sooner you can put a stop to the problem. If you do see evidence of identity theft, follow the FTC guidelines to report and remedy the situation.
- Protect personal information with strong cybersecurity: Safeguard online accounts with strong, generated passwords and enable multifactor authentication whenever possible. Don’t share passwords whenever possible and update a password immediately once someone no longer needs access to a shared account. Use a password-protected Wi-Fi network, and never do anything sensitive when on open, unsecured Wi-Fi.