Taking the time to protect your identity is extremely important. Numbers don’t lie, and when it comes to identity theft, the numbers aren’t pretty.
About 9 million people in the United States have their identity stolen every single year. On average, identity theft costs $631 out-of-pocket and 33 hours to fully resolve.
If you don’t like the thought of someone pretending to be you, using your social security cards to sign up for credit cards and ruining your good name, there are many things you can do on your own to safeguard your identity.
Part One: Securing Your Identity Online
To make this huge list more manageable we have broken it down into two sections. Part one covers protecting your identity online. Part Two covers protecting your identity offline.
1. Password Protect Electronic Devices
Failing to password protecting your electronic devices (phones, tablets etc) is a lot like leaving your home unlocked. If you get lucky, no one will take advantage — or the contents could be accessed and valuable personal information stolen from you.
A password may not always prevent a thief from accessing a device but it can give you additional time to remotely wipe any data if it is lost or stolen.
2. Encrypt Your Computer
When you encrypt your personal computer, someone will need your password to look at the contents if they have access to your hard drive.
If you have a Mac, this is very simple. Just access your settings, select “Security and Privacy,” select “FileVault” and choose the “Turn on FileVault” option. If you have a PC, you’ll need to use Bitlocker.
3. Set Up Two Factor Authentication for Email Accounts
Most email providers (including gmail and Yahoo) now offer two factor authentication. By requiring a code that is sent to your cell phone before your account can be access, this is an effective way to prevent unauthorized access.
This is important because it means someone won’t be able to sign into your email account — even with your password — from a strange device.
4. Change Your Facebook Settings
Change your default Facebook settings to “Friends Only,” as it’s probably set to public by default, allowing anyone to view your posts, pictures of your family and children and potentially personal information they can use against you.
Facebook also now supports Two Factor Authentication which is definitely worth activating.
Locking down and securing your data on Facebook and other social networks could fill an entire post on it’s own, however this guide from Gizmodo is updated frequently and provides a great outline of how to secure your Facebook account and manage privacy settings.
5. Watch Out for Fake Friends Online
Many identity thieves will also befriend you on Facebook, teen websites, chat rooms, dating sites or other social media sites in an attempt to learn more about you or your family to get personal information they can use to steal your identity.
Warning: This is especially true for children so take the time to check your child’s profile pages regularly to make sure their address, phone number and other information isn’t made public.
6. Regularly Clear Browser History and Cookies
Set up your browser settings to automatically clear cookies and browser history after every session by selecting privacy options. Tell your browser to never remember your history to limit tracking online.
In Chrome, Safari and Firefox these options can be found under Privacy in preferences.
7. Install Antivirus Software
Make sure you install reputable antivirus and spyware software on all of your computers and keep it updated. This prevents viruses on your computer that may be logging your keystrokes or accessing your personal files to learn your bank or email logins and other information that allows them to steal your identity.
8. Sign Up for a Google Alert on Your Name
This takes less than a minute: just go to google.com/alerts, enter your name and common variations with quotes around it and let Google send you email alerts when it finds new content online that uses your name.
9. Always Sign Out of Accounts When You’re Done
Whether you’re using your Facebook account or your online bank account, always make sure you sign out as soon as you’re finished.
This reduces the amount of tracking of your activity as you browse online but also prevents someone from sitting down at your computer and accessing your accounts. This is absolutely essential if you use a public computer, a friend’s computer or public wireless access.
10. Protect Your Smartphone
If you’re like most people, your phone has everything an identity theft needs, from access to your bank account through a mobile financial app to an app that stores passwords for all of your accounts.
Your phone probably also stores sensitive information from shopping online and using social networking sites.
To protect your smartphone from thieves, set it to auto-lock and password-protect your phone with a complex password that doesn’t use a dictionary word.
Enable remote tracking to make sure you can remotely lock your phone and erase its data if it’s stolen. iPhone users should install the Find My iPhone app that is provided by Apple.
Turn off Bluetooth if you aren’t using it to prevent identity thieves from pairing their Bluetooth device with your phone.
Make sure you only download apps from legitimate publishers (especially if you are using an Android device) and be careful on any Wi-Fi network as this may allow thieves to remotely access your phone data.
11. Use Strong Passwords and PINS
Never use a password or PIN with the last four digits of your social security number, your mother’s maiden name or the name of anyone close to you, birthdays, anniversaries, nicknames or your birth year.
Don’t use the same password or PIN for everything and, if necessary, write down your passwords on paper (do not store them on a computer) and keep this somewhere safe, not at your desk. Change your passwords every three months.
Take the time to research the most commonly used PIN numbers and avoid them. The PIN 1234 is used about 10% of the time, followed by 1111, 0000, 1212, 7777, etc. As so many people make their PIN a date of significance, most PINs begin with 01-09, 10, 11 or 12 and end in 01-31.
Thankfully, password managers exist that allow you to easily create, manage, and utilize unique, strong, random passwords and security questions on every site you visit. If you are looking for recommendations, check out LastPass or 1Password.
12. Be Mindful While Shopping Online
Before you make a purchase online, look for a Trust-e symbol or the Better Busienss Bureau seal. Do not give credit card information unless the website is secure or in an encrypted mode.
Part 2: Securing Your Identity Offline
13. Monitor Your Credit Reports
You may request a free credit report from all three major bureaus (Equifax, Experiance and TransUnion) once per year at AnnualCreditReport.com.
Even if you aren’t worried about your credit score (and you should be!), this allows you to monitor for signs of fraud, including new accounts you didn’t open and collections, debts or public records that don’t belong to you.
Because you can only request a free report once a year, fraud may go undetected for some time so consider signing up for Credit Sesame as well. This way you can monitor your credit report daily for free. They will even send you an alert if they detect a significant change.
14. Reduce Junk Mail
Even in the digital age, many identity thieves still use old-fashioned junk mail theft to steal your identity. Reduce the amount of junk mail you receive, including those credit card offers, by signing up at OptOutPreScreen.com. Keep in mind companies you have a relationship with can continue to send you mail so you’ll need to contact them individually.
15. Remove Yourself from Telemarketing Lists
Add yourself to the Do Not Call Registry here or by calling 1-888-382-1222 to have your name and phone number removed from telemarketing lists.
Not only does this help to protect your identity, but you’ll finally be able to eat dinner in peace!
16. Don’t Give Your Email, Zip Code or Phone Number
Have you ever been asked by a store employee to provide your phone number, zip code or email address when you check out?
Stores want this information so they can create a profile of you and your purchases, although you aren’t obligated to give this information. Politely refuse, or give a fake zip code.
17. Shred Personal Documents
Don’t just throw away financial documents or personal information in the trash; invest in a cheap shredder and dispose of these documents the safe way to prevent someone from going through your trash and accessing personal information.
18. Protect Your Social Security Number
Are you guilty of carrying your social security card in your wallet? If so, now’s the time to stop. Keep this personal information safe at home and never carry your social security card or your child’s with you.
While you’re at it, make sure your social security number is not on your driver’s license, health insurance cards or anything else. If it is, request a reissue. Never give anyone your social security number over the phone or through email.
19. Mail Bills from the Post Office
While it’s definitely easier to just walk to the curb and place your outgoing mail in the mailbox and wait for the postal carrier to pick it up, you may be making it too easy for identity thieves to pick up valuable bank or credit card information sitting there unguarded.
Take the time to mail your bills from the post office, where you’re sure it will be safe. On a related note, consider protecting incoming mail with a lock on your mailbox or a P.O. Box.
20. Don’t Let Your Credit Cards Out of Sight
Never hand over your credit card if a waitress or store employee needs to leave your sight to swipe it. This is very common in the restaurant industry, although many waitresses have been caught stealing credit card information, either by swiping it through a skimmer device that stores the information or just by writing down the credit card information by hand. This type of story makes the news fairly often.
In one case, a waitress stole credit card information with a skimmer from customers she claimed were bad tippers. This information was then given to someone who used it to make new credit cards, which could then be sold or used to be goods fraudulently.
According to police, these skimmer devices can be as small as a cigarette lighter and they are so easy to use you may not even notice if your card is swiped in your presence. Be vigilant!
21. Monitor Your Bills and Statements
Always go over your credit card bills and bank statements to look for fraudulent charges. While most identity thieves will steal your information and make new accounts, novices will still just steal your personal information and make charges to your existing accounts.
Usually these purchases will be small and there won’t be more than one charge per account. Instead, they might try to analyze your spending and mimic it, hoping you won’t even notice they’re using your account for some time.
22. Consider Getting a Smart Card
Rather than detecting fraud after it happens, switching to “smart cards” can help you prevent fraud in the first place.
These credit cards have EMV microchip technology, which makes them harder to counterfeit and more encrypted than the standard magnetic strip most credit cards have.
These cards may also require your PIN, not a signature, although they aren’t nearly as common in the U.S. as they are in Europe. EMV cards available in the U.S. include many from Chase, like the British Airways Visa Signature and Southwest Rapid Rewards, as well as a few from U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo, Citi and Bank of America.
23. Stay Vigilant During Travel
Every year, millions of people have their identity stolen while they’re traveling, although there are ways to limit this risk.
Avoid announcing any travel plans on social media, as this alerts thieves that your home will be empty. Place a hold on your mail to prevent theft and carry only necessities in your wallet when you travel.
You can also make or buy a decoy wallet with fake credit cards in it, just in case you’re pickpocketed, but it’s always a good idea to keep your wallet or purse safe.
Lock up important documents in a safe while you’re staying at a hotel and leave your computer at home, if possible, or avoid accessing personal accounts on a public network.
Highly Recommended: Only put your last name and phone number on luggage tags and tear up used boarding passes. Only use an ATM located in a bank, not on the street, and set up travel alerts on your credit card accounts and freeze your credit with all three credit bureaus before you leave.
24. Look Over Your Shoulder at ATMs
If you’re using a computer at a public location or you’re using an ATM, make sure no one is looking over your shoulder to obtain your password or PIN.
This also applies to conversations on the phone, as someone may be nearby listening for your credit card number.
25. Read the Explanation of Benefits from Your Health Insurer
Medical identity theft is all-too-common, although most people don’t even consider this a risk. Medical identity thieves may use your identity to get treatment for themselves or to get money from insurers by filing false claims.
Read your Explanation of Benefits statement from our health insurer and be sure to follow up on anything that seems unfamiliar. Each year, ask them for a list of benefits they’ve paid in your name.
26. Activate a Fraud Alert
You can place a fraud alert on yourself that attaches to your credit report from all 3 major bureaus. With this alert in place, lenders will need to contact you by phone to verify your identity whenever a new line of credit is opened.
Fraud alerts are only in place for 90 days and need to be reactivated, unless you’ve been the victim of identity theft, in which case this alert will apply for seven years.
27. Update Your Address When You Move
If you’re planning to move, make sure you contact all creditors and update your address change right away to prevent credit cards or information from being delivered to your old address.
Additional note: If your credit cards expire and you don’t get a new one in the mail, make sure you call the issuer right away.
28. Watch Out for Phishing Schemes
Never respond to emails, phone calls or texts that ask for personal information, no matter who they claim to be. No reputable business or organization will ever ask you for your password or personal information through these means, nor will they send you a message asking that you “verify” your information by sending it to them.