Every time you turn around, it seems another retailer is reporting a hack. Unfortunately, many of us can have our personal information stolen and used fraudulently. While having your credit card information taken is awful, a stolen identity is even worse.
When you are a victim of identity theft, it can mess with more than your credit cards. It can prevent you from being able to buy a car or even from landing your dream job. The idea is to stop it before it happens.
It may seem like something you can’t fight, but there are things you can do to protect yourself and limit the chances of getting your identity stolen.
HOW YOU CAN PREVENT IDENTITY THEFT
Check your credit report each year
Every person is allowed to receive a free credit report every year from AnnualCreditReport.com (do not use other sites as you may not be able to trust them). Review all items on the report for accuracy and if you find any discrepancies at all, report them at once.
When you are out and about, make sure you pay attention. Watch for people standing too close when at the ATM or entering your PIN information at the register. You can cup your hand around the numbers for an added level of security.
Also, make sure that your bag, purse or wallet are never unattended — or even just hanging on the back of a chair at a restaurant. A hanging bag is easy prey for a thief to grab and run. If you carry a purse, make sure it zips close rather than remains open or closes with a snap, as this can defray potential pickpockets.
Men should always carry their wallets where they can feel them close to their body – avoiding the back pocket or inside of your jacket (you might consider tethering your wallet if you will be doing much walking in public).
There are even devices that can see through your purse or wallet and grab your card information. Using an RFID wallet places a barrier between these would-be thieves and your data.
Watch your accounts
Keep a very close eye on your account transactions. Often, hackers will make a test purchase, which is a minimal amount. It is usually less than $1 (can even be just 1 or 2 cents), just to see if the number will work. Then, they reverse the transaction, leaving you to believe it was an error.
Since it is a small amount, most people will not notice until it is too late. When you see tiny transactions, it is a red flag that you should never ignore. You are potentially at risk of theft.
If you find this on your account, contact your bank at once so they can close your cards down and issue new ones.
Watch your bills
If you notice a statement is late, reach out to the company. Your bill could have been stolen, giving vital information to the person who has it.
When you pay your bills each month, review all transactions and payments to make sure you made them. It is also imperative to reconcile your bank statement and make sure theft has not happened in these accounts either.
Be careful of what you carry with you
Never keep every credit card you own in your wallet. Instead, opt for just one or two at the most. If your wallet is taken, then you will have only two cards to have to worry about rather than the 5 or 6 you may own.
Even more important than a credit card — Never, ever, ever, carry your social security card in your wallet. Your card should be kept at home or in a bank, in a safe place. Your SSN is one piece of information thieves need to steal your identity, which can result in loss of time (and even money) for you to correct. If you need to take it with you for any reason, do not put it in your wallet or purse. Keep it close to you, so you do not lose it nor allow for it to be stolen.
You should also leave your checkbook at home. A check gives anyone your bank account details, opening you up for potential theft. Leave the blank checks at home!
Dispose of documents properly
Shred any documents with important information on them — especially credit card applications. Your shredder should be a cross cut and not just long strips as those can be taped back to together easily. You can also use a document blocking stamp, which will place an image over your data, making it virtually impossible to read.
Also see: How long to keep credit card statements
Cut up your old card as soon as a new one arrives. I recommend a slice & dice where it is in small pieces that can not be put back together. It just isn’t enough to just cut in half anymore. Take the time to cut it up into smaller pieces, making sure that the numbers are unrecognizable.
Make sure your mailbox is not accessible. If you live in an area, such as we do, where the mail is in a lockbox, you are pretty safe. However, if you still have a traditional mailbox, you might want to spend the money to upgrade to one that locks. The mail can go in easily by your carrier, but the only way to remove it is to unlock it.
Don’t put your outgoing bills in your mailbox with the flag up. This is a red flag to thieves (pardon the pun). Your statements can be stolen out of your box, which provides them with account information as well as instant access to your bank account. Instead, take a minute to drop them into a location which can only be unlocked by postal carriers (such as lock boxes or mailboxes).
Be careful online
It is essential to upgrade your passwords at least annually. It is also good to not use only one single password for every one of your accounts as if one is hacked; a thief could gain instant access to every online account you have.
Your password must be something other than 12345 or ABCDE. It is best to avoid birthdays, anniversaries and other information, as thieves can often find that information out online. Instead, opt for a phrase and turn it into a password. For example:
Oh How I Wish I Were on Vacation Again In the Bahamas
It is even better to make your password more secure by adding in upper and lower case letters:
Oh How I Wish I Were on Vacation Again In the Bahamas
You can take this one level higher by adding in numbers or characters
I had so much fun on June 7 in the Bahamas with my 5 Friends
If you do shop online frequently, you can purchase gift cards to use instead of your debit or credit cards. This way, if the information is stolen, they have access only to the funds on that card and not full access to your accounts (this can be a safe practice when shopping in the stores as well).
If purchasing gift cards is not an option, you might just use one single card for all of your online purchases. If your information is ever compromised, it is just one card you will need to address rather than several.
Never, ever answer unsolicited emails. Reputable financial institutions will never send you an email asking you to verify your account information. If you do get one of these and are not sure if it is legitimate or not, contact the company to find out if they did, in fact, ask for this data.
Make sure you also use a strong firewall and security software to protect someone from hacking into your account or installing malware to track your activity.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU FIND YOUR IDENTITY WAS STOLEN
If you do find that you are the victim of theft, there are things you should do right away – but try to remain calm. Most financial institutions have fraud protection on accounts, to help protect consumers. (You might check with your financial institutions to learn what they offer and if it is not enough coverage, considering moving).
You should contact all of your card companies and bank at once. I recommend you keep a list of the credit card account numbers, pins and contact information on a form, somewhere in your home. This way, you can pull this information out and have an entire list of whom to contact, should this happen.
File a police report. This way, there is a record on file should charges ever become necessary, and your insurance company may require it as well. You will also want to read more about what to do, as released by the Federal Trade Commission.
Sure, using cash is absolutely the best way to protect yourself from this happening, but that isn’t possible for everyone. There are also cases where you do everything correctly, and your information is still compromised.
Just make sure that you do take the precautions necessary to try to prevent yourself from becoming a victim. And, if it does happen, act quickly to minimize the loss and to get your life back on track.