With the recent spate of data breaches and the prevalence of “social engineering” attacks like phishing, it’s more important than ever to be proactive when it comes to protecting your identity and personal data.
Taking steps now to reduce the chances you will become a victim is a lot easier and less time-consuming than cleaning up the mess an identity thief leaves behind. Here are a few simple tips to help keep your identity safe.
Review Your Credit Report. You should check your credit reports for fraudulent activity at least annually. You can receive one free copy of your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, once per year through the Annual Credit Report Request Service. If you believe you were a victim of identity theft, you are entitled to additional free reports. If you are not currently eligible for free reports, you can purchase them from the credit bureaus. When you obtain your reports, look over them carefully for balances that do not seem correct, accounts you never opened, or anything else that seems suspicious. Dispute inaccurate information with the bureaus immediately, and contact the involved creditors.
Guard Your Personal Information. When someone asks you for your information, never hesitate to ask questions or say no if you are uncomfortable. You should only provide personal data when you know how it will be used, you are sure the person or company is legitimate, and you are the one who initiated contact.
Check Your Statements. Know your billing cycles, and be sure to review your statements for accuracy. If you see any charges you did not authorize, contact the company immediately.
Minimize and Protect Your Mail. Try to reduce the amount of mail you receive containing sensitive information. Many credit card companies, banks, credit unions, utility providers, and other institutions allow you to elect to receive electronic statements only. Since you may not be able to completely stop the flow of mail containing personal information, be sure to empty your mailbox promptly. If you are going on vacation and there is no one available to pick up your mail, you can request a vacation hold with the post office.
Only Carry With You What You Need. If your wallet or bag is stolen, the less you have in it, the less information the thief has. There is almost never a need to carry your Social Security card with you.
Dispose Carefully. If you are disposing of a statement or something else containing personal information, shred it – don’t just don’t throw it in the trash.
Protect Your Computer and Smartphone. Use a firewall and anti-virus/anti-spyware software to reduce your computer’s vulnerability to hackers. Make all passwords hard to guess by using a complex combination of numbers and upper and lower case letters. Before disposing of your computer or smartphone, be sure to delete personal information using a “wipe” utility program to overwrite the entire hard drive. When shopping online, use a secure browser (enter information only when there is a “lock” icon on the browser’s status bar and look for the URL to read “https”). Don’t send sensitive personal information via email or download files, or open hyperlinks sent by people you don’t know.
Being vigilant and protecting your identity can be cumbersome, but with these simple strategies, you are on your way. For more information and additional complimentary financial education and counseling resources, visit our Balance Page. Stay safe out there!