Identity theft can happen to anyone, and even the most careful and vigilant people often fall prey to identity thieves. From recent data breaches making the news to even celebrities admitting that they have fallen victim to identity theft (including 50 Cent), the issue has certainly become a hot topic. Unfortunately, the prevalence of identity theft in the news doesn’t seem to be slowing down the effects of it.
According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, identity theft includes unauthorized use or attempted use of an existing account, using someone else’s personal information to open an account, or misuse of personal information for fraudulent purposes. Most of us have heard of identities being stolen and sold to the highest bidder online, but it isn’t always strangers who steal your identity.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 7 percent of people 16 and older were victims of identity theft. Here are five ways you can protect yourself against identity theft — no one is 100 percent safe, but keeping these guidelines in mind will help you.
1. Know when you need to share your Social Security number
Even though identity theft is so common now, many doctors’ offices and other entities are still identifying patients or customers by this number. The first thing you should know is that the Privacy Act of 1974 requires that government agencies at the local, state, and federal level disclose to you whether submitting your Social Security number is required. The agency must also tell you how your information is used and what law or authority requires it. If someone can’t answer this question, don’t give them your information.
According to IdentityHawk.com, you are not legally required to provide your number unless your transaction requires notification to the Internal Revenue Service or you are creating a financial transaction that is subject to Federal Customer Identification Program rules. You should never give your Social Security number through email or to someone who calls you on the phone. You will have to determine whether to give your Social Security number out in other situations, but with the exception of loans, insurance (and many places will accept just your last four digits for verification purposes), or government agencies, you should rarely give it out.
2. Protect yourself against strangers
Just because someone works for a reputable business or restaurant doesn’t mean they are trustworthy, and this is one of the hardest issues to fight against. Your debit card can easily be compromised at a restaurant or other store, and your Social Security number or driver’s license could easily be taken advantage of at a doctor’s office. One of the best things you can do when eating out is to pay cash, but if that isn’t possible, use a card that has identity theft protection. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, eighty-five percent of identity theft in 2012 involved the fraudulent use of existing account information like credit cards or bank account information.
You also can protect yourself by safeguarding your computer (use virus protection, unique passwords and pins, anti-spyware, etc.), carefully monitoring your mail for any unusual new accounts, shredding all important documents you no longer want to keep, and by checking your credit score. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian to provide you with a free copy of your credit report annually if you request it.
3. Protect yourself against your family and friends
While you probably imagine a sneaky waitress at a restaurant, a billing receptionist at a medical office, or some other stranger going through your mail as the most likely people to steal your identity, the truth is that these are not the people who have the easiest access to your personal information. Your family and friends are the people who have the most access to your information. Sad as it is, you need to protect your information from them, as well.
Although most family members and friends have good intentions and would never try to steal your identity (just like the waitress, receptionist, etc.), people get desperate sometimes. Your best bet is to keep your private information locked up somewhere safe. You also can protect yourself by opting out of credit card offers so that family members and friends who stop by can’t simply pick up a credit offer off your table and sign up.
4. Protect your children
You have to protect your children against identity theft, even though this seems completely ridiculous. The truth is that the minute your child receives a Social Security number or even a birth certificate, someone could use their private information. Children are perfect targets for identity thieves because they can open multiple accounts and potentially not get caught for years.
Children are actually thirty-five to fifty-one times more likely than adults to be identity theft victims, and it takes an average of 334 days to detect a theft. Twenty-seven percent of cases against children are perpetrated by family or friends. You can protect your children by carefully storing their information, as well as getting child identity protection like AllClear ID.
5. Consider identity theft protection
You can and should do a lot to protect against identity theft yourself, but if you want full protection, you might want to consider identity theft protection. Many companies offer a free trial, so you can try one out to see if you like it. Some companies offer minimal assistance if you become a victim, but others will handle any and all identity theft issues you have as long as you are using their software. Paying for identity theft protection won’t stop you from becoming a victim, but it will help you notice any issues faster. You also will potentially save yourself many hours of trying to fix your credit if you do become a victim.
Although identity theft is sometimes perpetrated by a family member or friend, it is often completely random. You can try to protect yourself against identity theft, but you may not be able to avoid it. Unless, of course, you want to move to a remote island and freeze all of your accounts.
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