Identity theft can rock your world, and not in a good way. You could lose access to your financial accounts, or find yourself with a surprise lien on your house. You might even end up under arrest if someone commits a crime under your identity.
What can you do to head off these alarming possibilities? Here are some simple tips that can help you stay ahead of the thieves. None of these will guarantee your safety against a thief who has targeted you personally, but most criminals go after the low-hanging fruit—those who fail to protect themselves. These ten tips can help make sure you, and your identity, aren’t easy pickings.
1. Shred, Shred, Shred
Never discard or recycle bank statements, bills, or any document that contains your personal information. Invest in a home document shredder, and use it. When in doubt, shred!
2. Secure Your Documents
You don’t need constant access to important documents like birth certificates, tax returns, social security cards, and so on. Keep those in a fireproof home safe. That’s a better choice than a bank safe-deposit box. Box contents aren’t insured, and banks have been known to drill out boxes and remove their contents without notice.
How about a lockbox for your digital docs as well? By using encryption software, you can ensure that a snoop who gains access to your computer won’t be able to read your sensitive documents.
3. Power Up Your Passwords
It’s true that a breach at any secure site could conceivably reveal your login credentials to thieves, but you can minimize the damage by using a different strong password for every secure site. Of course you’ll need a password manager to keep them straight.
4. Mum’s the Word
You do have to provide personal information when you want certain things, for example, a mortgage, or a new insurance account. At that time, though, you’ve initiated the process, and you’ve verified you’re dealing with a legitimate company. When a company contacts you asking for personal info, whether by snail-mail, email, or phone, zip your lip. If you feel the contact might be legitimate, ask for a way to contact them after you’ve done some investigating.
5. Don’t Be Fooled
It’s nice to get help from tech support for any computer problems you may have. Don’t be fooled, though, by supposed tech support agents who phone or otherwise contact you. Yes, they may claim that your computer is sending out viruses, and that they must clean it or you’ll be in trouble. They’ll come up with any wild story, but eventually they’ll start asking for passwords, or requesting remote access to your computer. Hang up.
6. Lock Your Phone
That smartphone in your pocket is an identity thief’s dream. It has your email, IM, social media, and other apps, probably logged in and available. It contains personal data galore, including all of your contacts. You absolutely must use a strong authentication method to lock the phone. A four-digit PIN is not enough, nor is a too-simple swipe pattern. Your best bet is biometric authentication, such as fingerprint or facial recognition like that offered by the iPhone X, backed by a seriously strong passcode.
7. Phishing Is No Phun
Getting a data-stealing Trojan installed on millions of computers is hard work. It’s much easier to simply trick victims into giving away their credentials. Phishing websites mimic banking and other sensitive sites, in hopes that some poor sap will enter his username and password. They may even redirect to the actual site.
Don’t give your identity away. If you get an email apparently from your bank, don’t click any links. Instead, log on to the bank’s site directly. Look for a secure HTTPS URL and lock icon, and be sure the URL in the address bar is correct. And if your antivirus or browser flags a site as fraudulent, stay away!
Phishing is a problem in the workplace, too. In an attack dubbed spear phishing, malefactors craft extremely convincing emails, designed to fool employees or executives into giving away their passwords, or even transferring money into shady accounts. Stay alert when using your work email, too.
8. Install Protection
Every PC and laptop needs a powerful antivirus, or even an entire security suite. A few security suites include antitheft protection for laptops; there are also standalone utilities that can lock down a lost or stolen laptop and even help recover it. Security products for mobile devices tend to combine antivirus and antitheft. Android devices are particularly vulnerable, but any device can get lost or stolen, so install protection.
Don’t stop there; install a virtual private network, or VPN, as well. Your local security software protects your data on your own devices, while the VPN protects it as it travels the internet. Using a VPN also serves to hide your personal IP address, thereby preventing websites from identifying your location based on that address.
9. Avoid Oversharing
Sharing your posts and pictures with your circle of social media friends is fun, but you might be sharing with identity thieves if you’re not careful. It’s very important to correctly secure your social media. Check your privacy settings from time to time, as the social media services are fond of making changes.
10. Get Free Credit Reports
You’re eligible for one free credit report per year from the big three credit agencies. You can sign up for reports from TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian at www.annualcreditreport.com. Yes, the Equifax breach exposed personal data for 143 million Americans, but the company is still in business. Here’s a trick; don’t get them all at once. Get one at a time, four months apart. That will give you better coverage overall. Also consider signing up for the free, ad-supported Credit Karmaservice, which keeps a watchful eye on your credit score.
One more thought. You’ve surely seen advertistements that promise protection against identity theft. In truth, these services can’t really prevent identity theft, but they can be very helpful at dealing with the consequences. Consider exactly what identity theft protection services do (and don’t do), and then decide whether you’re willing to pay for the service.
You don’t have to totally change your life in order to protect against identity theft. Follow these ten simple tips and you’ll have a very good chance of thwarting theft.