It’s impossible to protect yourself completely from identity theft, but you can cut your risks with some simple precautions.
Keep a Secure Mindset
Don’t give out your personal information. If someone calls you asking for your social security number or a credit card number, ask for a number to call them back. That’s assuming they have a valid need for the information. If you’re ordering something by telephone, don’t let the other person repeat your credit card number – say it twice instead. You don’t know who’s standing behind them taking notes.
Pay attention to your billing cycles. When you notice a bill is more than a day or two late, check with the company. Identity thieves frequently change their victim’s mailing address.
Look at your mail, even junk mail, before you throw it away. Identity thieves go digging through trash for something they can use. It’s called “dumpster diving.” Sometimes mail looks innocent enough, but the customer number on the front of the envelope is your social security number. That’s not supposed to happen, but it does. Be sure you aren’t accidentally throwing important information away.
Opt out of junk mail and pre-screened credit offers. You can visit this website, or call 800-5-OPT-OUT to stop getting junk mail. You can opt out of pre-screened credit offers by calling 888-567-8688. Both numbers will give you the option to be permanently removed. It will take a couple of months to notice the junk mail slows down.
When in doubt, shred it. Some bank statements still show your full account number. When you’ve balanced your checkbook, shred it. If you need it again, you can get another copy from the bank. Use a diamond, crosscut, or confetti shredder. You can buy one at Wal-Mart, Office Depot, or places like that.
Don’t pay bills through the mail. Identity thieves often drive through neighborhoods looking for outgoing mail. They know when people aren’t home. They know when the mail runs. They put fliers on doors advertising pizza or dry-cleaning or whatever. But they also look for bill payments in the outgoing mail if they can get to it. These will have your credit card number, or a check in them.
Many banks are now encouraging their customers to use online billing and bill payment. This gets rid of the paper stuff (bills, checks, etc.) that an identity thief can get their hands on.
Limit what you carry in your purse/wallet. You have to carry your driver’s license if you’re on the road. If you think you’ll need to make a purchase, carry some cash, too. Only carry your ATM/debit card for longer trips. The same thing goes for credit cards.
Don’t hand out your ATM/credit card. When you’re paying for lunch with a card, keep an eye on the staff. Some servers will offer to take your payment while you’re still at the table. They do this for your convenience. But it also puts your information at risk. Nobody will be offended if you pay on your way out, and you can keep your card with you.
Check your receipts. Federal law (PDF) says that electronic receipts can only show the last 5 digits of your credit card number. They aren’t supposed to show the expiration date, either. Unfortunately, some companies are slower than others in complying with these laws. If a receipt shows your full credit card number, use cash. (Note: The old-fashioned impression machines are still legal, this law only applies to electronic receipts.)
Be ready for a robber. Carry a wallet that just has your driver’s license and some cash in it. You can make it look more realistic by putting some pictures in it. Cut them out of magazines, don’t put pictures of your kids in this wallet. Old credit cards can go here, too, as long as they don’t work. If you get robbed, give this one to the thief. Carry extra cash in a money clip. ATM and credit cards fit nicely into a second wallet – keep it in a different pocket.
Never carry your social security card unless you know you’ll need it.
Lock up important documents. A fireproof safe is the best place for birth certificates, your kids’ social security cards, and checking & savings information. The top-right drawer of your desk is the worst.
Teach your kids to watch their personal information. Many schools still use social security numbers for student ID numbers. Schools also make up the second-largest industry reporting data breaches (i.e. raw materials for identity theft,) topped only by hospitals.
In most states, schools don’t need your child’s social security number, so why hand it out? Teach your teens not to put their social security number on a job application until s/he is offered a job. Help them make smart decisions about what to put on Facebook, My Space or other social networking pages.