If you’ve read Greg’s post on computer malware, you may we wondering about other ways to protect yourself from the growing problem of identity theft. No, you don’t need to sign up with a company like Lifelock or one of the many credit monitoring services. (In fact, given the news around Lifelock, you can even say that it’s a bit of a scam itself.) The fact is that for low or no cost, you can get essentially the same protections that these companies are charging monthly fees by following these tips.
Guard your information
The first step in stealing your identity is for the identity thief to get your name and sensitive financial information like your Social Security or credit card numbers in order to get loans in your name or make withdrawals from your bank account. Here are some ways to protect that information:
- Shred any documents with sensitive information on it before throwing them out.
- Be careful of using your credit or debit cards at locations like remote gas stations or ATMs since thieves can attach skimming machines to them that steal your card info.
- Verify that emails are coming from your financial institution before entering financial information and account passwords.
- Keep a record of your credit card information so that you can quickly cancel a card that is lost or stolen.
- If you have cards with Radio Frequency Identification or RFID, consider protecting them from scanners with an RFID safe wallet or credit card shield.
- Avoid using your debit or credit cards in places like restaurants when they’re taken out of your sight.
- Take steps to protect your computer and smartphone from malware.
Protect your credit
Even the best precautions won’t always work to prevent a thief from accessing your information. The second line of defense is to prevent the thief from using that info to open a line of credit in your name.
You can do that by setting a credit security freeze with each of the three credit bureaus. Since it prevents new creditors from accessing your credit file unless you specifically grant them access, it’s stronger than a fraud alert. Each state has slightly different procedures and fees. Where I live in California, placing and lifting the freeze is free for identity theft victims, $5 for people over 65, and $10 for everyone else and it stays active until you remove it.
Monitor your credit
If all else fails, you’ll want to catch the consequences of identity theft as soon as possible so you can quickly get it fixed. At the very least, look at your bank and credit card statements regularly for any fraudulent charges. You can also get free credit monitoring through creditkarma, which alerts you if there are any changes in your credit file like a new loan opened in your name. After all, a new loan probably won’t show up on your current statements. If you do find yourself a victim, you can learn about the steps to take here.
When you consider the costs in time, money, and stress of dealing with identity theft, it’s definitely worth taking these precautions. The problem is that it’s too easy to get complacent about something that you think won’t happen to you. But I’m sure the 1 out 18 US households that become victims each year probably thought that things like this only happen to “other people” too.
So in addition to protection yourself and your family, feel free to share this post with your friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter. If just 18 of them read it, odds are that you’ll save one of them from becoming another victim.