While there's no ironclad way to guarantee you will never fall victim to identity theft, there are ways you can reduce your risk.
Keep your personal information personal
- Commit all your passwords to memory. Never write them down or carry them with you.
- Never give out your personal information over the phone or Internet, unless you've initiated the contact and know with whom you are dealing. Never give out such information in exchange for prizes. If you think it's a legitimate offering, have them put the information in writing and send it to you.
- If you have to give out personal or financial information from a public phone or cell phone, make sure no one is listening – or better yet, move to a more secure location.
- Give out your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary.
- Thieves have been known to take information from medical charts; tell your doctors and nurses to be careful with yours.
- Destroy – don't just simply erase – your hard drive before you discard, sell or give away your computer.
- Lock all your personal information in a filing cabinet or safe at home (which, of course, should also be burglar-proofed).
- Stay informed. Watch the media for the latest scams and how to avoid them.
Carry only what you need, when you need it for security
- Don't carry your Social Security card; keep it in a safe place at home.
- Don't keep your auto insurance policies – or registration – in your car. Keep your insurance locked at home; your registration in your wallet.
- Only take the credit cards and identification cards that are absolutely necessary.
- Keep your wallet in your front pocket so it'll be tough for a pickpocket. Carry a purse close to your body through its straps.
- Carry traveler's checks rather than personal bank checks.
Mind your money matters
- Know when your bills and bank statements normally arrive. If one is late, call to ask why. It may have fallen into the wrong hands.
- Examine all of your bank and credit card statements each month; watch for mistakes or unfamiliar charges that may be signs of identity theft.
- Examine your credit reports from the three major credit reporting agencies at least once each year to make sure no one has stolen your name and is compromising your credit. You're entitled to one FREE credit report from each agency each year, in accordance with the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act.
- When you're done with your statements, preapproved credit card offers and other vital information, don't just trash them. Shred or cut them up.
- Use direct deposit, whenever possible, rather than a paper paycheck.
- Don't have new checks mailed to you at home; pick them up at the bank.
- If your "bank" calls to update your "records", ask for the caller's name and number and call them back. It's almost always a scam.
- Cancel any credit cards you haven't used in the last six months. Open credit accounts are prime targets for identity thieves.
- Prefer not to receive preapproved credit card offers. Write to the Direct Marketing Association, Mail Preference Service, P.O. Box 643, Carmel, NY 10512.
- Call the Credit Reporting Industry at 1-888-567-8688 as an extra step to stop credit card and insurance offers from coming to your home.
- "Skimming" – or secretly copying – the magnetic strip on the back of your credit or debit card when you make a purchase.
- Abusing an employer's authorized access to credit reports, or by posing as a landlord, employer or someone else who may have a legitimate need for, and legal right to, your personal information.
- "Phishing" on the Internet by sending legitimate looking (but fraudulent) emails asking for your personal and financial data, often with the promise of a great prize or bargain.
- "Pharming" – or hijacking – a legitimate domain to their web site and stealing the information of users who believe they're providing their data to their customary service provider.