You’ve heard the horror stories from friends and neighbors, or maybe you’ve lived through some yourself: In 2015, 13.1 million Americans had their identity stolen, the highest number in six years. Victims, including consumers, banks and others, lost $15 billion, according to a study released in early February by Javelin Strategy and Research. To put that into perspective, last year fraudsters stole $35,600 every minute in the U.S.
We are all vulnerable to identity theft, but the magnitude of the problem may be even worse than we think: Adam Levin, author of Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves, says every one of us will experience ID fraud during our lifetime.
As frightening and depressing as that sounds, you can also think of it as a call to action. By taking a few precautions, you can diminish how time-consuming and costly an invasion of your privacy will be. Here’s how:
1. Monitor Your Statements and Credit Reports. A key measure to help minimize the damage from someone hacking into your life is to frequently examine your bank, credit card and other account statements, says Paige Hanson, chief of identity education at LifeLock, an identity theft protection company based in Tempe, Arizona. “Don’t wait until the end of the month when statements come in the mail. Check them every week online,” says Hanson. And sign up for alerts from your bank or credit company to get a text message or email when a charge or withdrawal is above a certain amount.
Hanson adds that she sees spikes in ID theft during tax season and the holidays. When you increase the amount of shopping you do during November and December, you should also escalate how often you check your credit card statements to every other day.
That kind of monitoring will help catch questionable activity on accounts you know about, but the only way to catch fraudulent new accounts that scammers might have opened is to monitor your credit reports for unauthorized accounts under your name. Free reports are available from each of the three credit bureaus at www.annualcreditreport.com. You can request one each from Equifax, TransUnion and Experian every year. Also, monitor your mail from financial institutions or debt collectors to determine if new accounts were opened in your name without your knowledge.
Related: The IRS Warns of a New Tax-Season Scam
2. Don’t Share Personally Identifiable Information. We all know not to give out our Social Security number to a caller or on medical paperwork, but Hanson offers some additional outside-the-box suggestions.
- Use a name other than your real one when applying for a store loyalty program card.
- When asked a security question for a website that requires a user name and password, don’t type the correct answers to the questions. For example, if asked your mother’s maiden name, make one up. Create a fake street for your first address.
The more actual facts you reveal about yourself online, Hanson says, the easier it is for a scammer to steal your identity.
3. Earmark One Credit Card for Online Purchases. By dedicating only one credit card for Internet shopping, you can quickly discover where any problem might have started when you’re verifying your statement. That also helps limit identity thieves to a single card to steal information from.
Don’t buy online with a debit card, says Hanson. Should someone steal your debit card number and use it, that money comes out of your account immediately. But with a credit card, you have recourse with the company backing the card as long as you report the theft in a timely manner.
4. Shred Your Documents. We’ve been told numerous times that all mail containing our name, address and account numbers should go through the shredder. Hanson cautions that the envelopes those documents arrive in should also be destroyed.
“The envelope tells scammers what your credit card company is or where you bank,” she explains. “That might be the last piece of the puzzle the fraudster needs to steal your identity.”
5. Protect Your Mobile Phone. Even though it takes time and can be disruptive, Hanson recommends installing software updates as soon as you get them. This way all the bugs are fixed and the data on your phone is as secure as possible. As a further safeguard make sure your phone is password-protected.
A few more tips for playing it safe with your phone:
- Only download apps from the official app store for your phone
- Install virus protection software as you do on your computer (available for both iPhones and Androids)
- Don’t make transactions when connected to public Wi-Fi.
6. Be Suspicious of Unknown Callers. Beware of anyone who dials your number and asks you to verify your personal information and/or asks you to send them money. Legitimate businesses don’t call you and ask for your name, address, credit card or bank account numbers. The same goes for the IRS, which notifies you by mail if there’s a problem.
7. Tread Lightly with Email and Texts. Those interested in stealing your identity may send you spam emails or text messages repeatedly. They might offer scholarships, partnerships or even free products and may look legitimate…until they ask for your personal information. This is called phishing, because the fraudsters are fishing for the information they need to steal your identity. Watch for the following:
- The sender’s email address may mimic that of a trusted company, but isn’t identical.
- Phishers often request you take urgent action.
- They open the message with “Dear Customer” or “Dear Member” because they don’t have your name.
- The emails contain misspelled words, incorrect grammar, links or attachments.
If you think the offer is a scam, you can visit www.scambusters.org to find out for sure. Keep your personal information secure by not clicking on any links associated with these emails nor any attachments. And don’t reply to them. If you want to check on any such alerts, contact your bank by using the number on your credit card or checkbook.