It’s a fact of life — if you use social media or online banking, or have ever bought something online, you’ve shared your personal information across the digital world. Apps actively track your online presence, preferences and purchases, your geographic location and your contacts.
The Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network took in over 5.7 million fraud, identity theft and other consumer marketplace protection reports in 2021. Of these, 1.4 million (25%) were for identity theft.
There’s no reliable way to evade becoming a victim of identity theft. However, there are some precautionary actions you can take to lessen your chance of becoming a victim. Writing for Forbes, cybercrime expert John Wilson points to six preventative measures you can do to protect your identity from criminals and scammers.
Safeguard Your Social Security Number with my Social Security Account (MySSA)
Social Security numbers are the key to identity theft. The SSA has measures in place to thwart criminals attempting to defraud the agency at the first sign of wrongdoing, but most individuals don’t have that security.
Wilson suggests protecting your investment and personal information by signing up for a free and secure my Social Security account with the Social Security Administration (SSA). Creating a mySSA account gives you the confidence to monitor your SSA benefits for suspicious entries on a secure site that follows federal guidelines and additional security measures. A mySSA account provides personalized financial tools for anyone, whether they already receive benefits or are planning to.
Create an Identity Protection PIN (IP PIN) with the IRS
Printed and digital tax returns have every crucial piece of personal and financial information an identity thief could hope for. Most importantly, they have your Social Security number, which is the single most useful piece of personal information a thief can use to apply for a job, sign up for fraudulent credit cards, make purchases, open an account in your name, drain your bank accounts and seek medical assistance in your name.
You can have an extra layer of protection in the form of the IRS’ Identity Protection PIN, which is a six-digit identity verification code that only you and the IRS know. Having this in place will help to block scammers from filing fake tax returns using your Social Security number.
Restrict Access to Your Credit Report by Freezing It
According to Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, you can order your credit report free once a year from one the three credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. You can also freeze your credit files free of charge through the same three credit agencies. Freezing your credit report will deter any new creditor from accessing your credit information. However, your credit information will still be accessible by request from existing creditors.
Sign Up for a Reputable Credit Monitoring Service
Tips to significantly limit your exposure to identity theft are all well and good but some people find monitoring their information to be too time-consuming. Sites like CNBC and Forbes recommend free credit monitoring services from Credit Karma and Experian but, as they also note, the best paid monitoring services like IdentityForce, Privacy Guard and Experian IdentityWorks offer services the free monitoring companies do not: triple-bureau protection (monitoring of the three credit bureaus) using industry-standard FICO scoring, dark web and social media scanning and insurance up to $1 million if your identity is compromised.
If You Don’t Need It, Shred It
Despite our growing reliance on digital verification and documentation, paper still presents a huge opportunity for criminals to steal your identity. Wilson advises that it is worth your while to invest in a home office shredder. If you have a large amount of business or personal files you are getting rid of, get a business to do it.
According to Kiplinger.com, you should continue to keep certain documents depending on what they are and if you will need them in the future. Tax audits are rare but the IRS can go back three years for an audit. They recommend saving anything pertaining to your homeownership too. Think twice before throwing anything away but DO shred anything that you won’t need or that is already duplicated digitally and in a secure spot.
Always Be on Alert for Phishing Scams and Use Multi-Factor Identification
Phishing is a type of identity theft that can be carried out through email, text or a false website aping a legitimate organization. If your most-used sites offer multi-factor identification, use it. Having the extra layer of defence of two or more forms of identification when signing in will help protect your account from unauthorized use and potential identity fraud. As always, if an email or site looks phishy, it probably is.
There are no guarantees to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft. Data breaches and hacks happen to the most careful of companies and individuals. However, in addition to the common-sense routines you should be practicing every day (not giving out your personal or financial information on the phone, secure web surfing, keeping confidential physical and digital information in safe locations), taking steps to prevent your information from falling into the wrong hands will provide you with an extra barrier or two against identity thieves.
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This article originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com: Creating an Online Social Security Account and More Expert Tips for Protecting Your Identity