With everything going electronic and online, identity theft has become an ever more common problem. All the information whizzing around us — the e-mails we send, the forms we fill out, the news feeds we follow and comment on — all of it can be used by would-be thieves to gain access to your personal information and your financial accounts.
It isn’t that these thieves are master hackers; geniuses using their talents to target everyday folk one at a time. In reality, most identity thieves depend on us to make one or two simple mistakes and provide them with access to everything. Learning three basic truths can foil the thieves’ nefarious plans and place some strong protections between their fumbling fingers and your finances.
1. Security gaps are easy to close
Though digital and online identity thefts are becoming more common, many instances of identity theft originate with a bit of physical access. A lost wallet or other piece of information carried around, a piece of incoming mail and sensitive documents thrown out in the garbage remain the leading access points for identity thieves.
“A good rule of thumb is to shred all personal documents before disposing, from unsolicited credit card applications received in the mail to receipts received at retailer check-out locations," says Kim Garner, senior vice president of Global Security and Investigation for an international banking service.
Keeping personal details offline — not hidden behind easily broken privacy barriers, but omitted from your profiles completely — is also recommended.
“Information you post on the Internet is never completely private, and fraudsters are adept at accessing information online, even within privacy settings," Garner says. “Don't post your full birth date, home address, pets' names or anything else that could be used to impersonate you.”
2. Being proactive about identity theft response is easy
No matter how careful you are with your personal information, there’s always some risk that your information will fall into the wrong hands. Fortunately for you — and unfortunately for the identity thieves — there are some easy ways to protect yourself, your family and your business even after your identity has been compromised.
If you’re worried about identity theft, it only takes a few minutes to contact one of the three credit reporting bureaus (Equifax, Experian and Transunion) and place an alert on your credit file. If you place an alert with one bureau, it will contact the other two, and for the next 90 days you should receive a phone call anytime someone (including you) tries to open a new account in your name. As soon as one alert expires, you can simply place a new one.
There are also many services that will place these alerts for you, and that offer other credit monitoring services that can help protect you. Be wary before purchasing these services, however, and make sure you shop around.
“There has been a problem in general with some ID-theft services claiming to do more than they actually do,” says Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America. “We tell them to steer clear of anybody who says they will prevent you from becoming an ID-theft victim because no one can really make that claim.”
3. Quick reporting works
The faster you learn about an identity theft or identity theft attempt, the faster you can report it, and the faster you report it, the less the thief can get away with. As soon as you think your identity might have been compromised, contact a credit-reporting bureau, your financial institutions and the Federal Trade Commission.
It’s true. The FTC probably won’t get involved in investigating your case, but they can help make sure you’re protected from further damage and get you on track to setting things right. When your identity is secure again, the thief is out of luck, so pick up the phone if you even suspect an intrusion!