The Best Way to Protect Your Identity

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Identity thieves are always prowling for vulnerable consumers online.
Identity thieves are always prowling for vulnerable consumers online. (Image: Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Identity theft is not uncommon in the United States. About 9 million Americans have their identities stolen every year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Identity theft is when someone starts using your personal information such as Social Security number, name or credit card to commit fraud or other crimes. It is time consuming and costly to repair your name once your identity is stolen. The best thing you can do is to protect your personal information before it is stolen.

Keep your Social Security number in a safe place at home instead of carrying it in your wallet. You do not want give a thief all your personal information when you lose your wallet by keeping your Social Security card, driver's license and bank cards in the same place. Never write your Social Security number on a check. Provide your Social Security number only when it is necessary. Ask to substitute another number if your state uses your Social Security number as your driver's license number.

Ask, "Why?" whenever you are required to provide your Social Security number to a business other than your company or financial institution which may require it for wage, tax reporting purposes or credit checks. Find out how your Social Security number will be used if you are applying for a loan or trying to rent an apartment. How do you protect Social Security numbers from being stolen? What will happen if I don't give you my Social Security number? The FTC recommends that you ask such questions to determine whether you want to release personal information or not based on the answers you are given.

Shred all the copies of insurance forms, charge receipts, health care statements, checks and bank statements and any credit or other offers you get by postal mail. Identity thieves sometimes pick through trash or recycling bins looking for your personal information. Deposit mail with sensitive personal information in official mailboxes or at your local post office instead of leaving it in an unsecured mailbox. Opt out of pre-screened offers of credit if you are concerned about the security of your personal information by calling 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688). Contact the U.S. Postal Service if you intend to be away from home for an extended period of time at 1-800-275-8777 or usps.gov. Ask for a vacation hold.

Ensure your computer is protected from spyware if you use it for online shopping by installing effective security software. Be wary of entertainment, financial and other offers that might leave you vulnerable to unscrupulous characters online. Always deal with credible businesses you are familiar with such as well-established financial institutions. But look out for phishing emails purporting to be your bank asking you to provide personal information by filling out a form on a clone website. Never save your password on your credit card, bank and phone accounts. Change your passwords on such accounts frequently. Create strong passwords by combining letters and numbers.

Restrict access to your credit report if you live in a state that allows consumer to "freeze" their credit. The FTC recommends you do that to prevent potential creditors and other third parties to access your credit unless you temporarily lift the restriction. That will prevent anyone from opening a bank account using your information. A credit freeze does not affect your credit score in any way. Obtain identity theft insurance protection if possible. It will not protect your personal information but it will minimize losses if identity theft would happen.

Tips & Warnings

  • Keep your personal information secure at home especially if you have roommates or employ outside help. Always keep your wallet safe. Monitor your bank and credit statements all the time. You cannot entirely protect your identity information, but you can minimize the risk of having it stolen by taking precautionary measures.
  • Never trust a private individual with your personal information unless you are sure there is a legitimate need.

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