DMJ explores Identity Theft in a three-part blog series. “Identity Theft – Be Aware, Prepare, and Take Care” will address common types of theft, how to protect yourself, and what to do if your identity is stolen.
If you use an ATM, debit or credit card, have a bank account, own a cell phone, own a home, have a mortgage, have health insurance, have applied for loans or other credit, have ever seen a doctor or use the internet — you are at risk for identity theft.
Review your credit reports (and those of any minor children). You have a right to a free credit report every 12 months from each of the three nationwide credit reporting companies. Order all three reports at once, or one report every four months (www.annualcreditreport.com or 1-877-322-8228).
Opt out of prescreened offers of credit and insurance (www.optoutprescreen.com or 1-888-567-8688). Your initial request only places your name and address on the opt-out list temporarily. To permanently opt out, you must complete and return the confirmation letter you will receive in the mail. Opt out of telemarking phone calls (www.donotcall.gov or 1-888-383-1222).
Use a PO Box address or a locked mailbox at home. Collect delivered mail promptly & suspend mail delivery during vacations. Use direct deposit and online bill payments. Arrange for paperless bills and statements, if possible. When ordering new checks, don’t have them mailed to your home unless you have a secure, locking mailbox. Take outgoing mail to post office collection boxes or the post office.
Use a cross-cut shredder to dispose of all documents that show personal, financial and medical information; mix the shredded papers in with your regular trash. Destroy the labels on prescription bottles before discarding.
Don’t carry checks, birth certificate, passport, Social Security card or any document with your Social Security number in your wallet or purse unless needed that day. Don’t carry extra credit cards in your wallet or purse. Photocopy the contents of your wallet (front and back) to aid you in the event your wallet is lost or stolen. Carry your vehicle registration and insurance card in your wallet or purse instead of leaving in your vehicle.
Keep your personal information and documents in a secure place at home; if using a locking file cabinet, don’t store the key nearby. Consider a safe deposit box to store critical personal documents you don’t need to access regularly. Review your stored documents annually and shred any documents you are no longer legally required to keep.
Never click on links from unsolicited emails. Avoid clicking on links from emails to get to your online accounts — instead type the web address (URL) of the site directly into your browser or use previously saved bookmarks. Create passwords that mix letters, numbers and special characters and have a minimum of eight characters — don’t use the same password for more than one account and don’t share your passwords with anyone. Don’t always use the proper password to initially log in to your computer to combat “keystroke” stealing. If you shop or bank online, use websites that protect your financial information with encryption (an encrypted site has “https” at the beginning of the web address; “s” is for secure). If you use a public wireless network, don’t send information to any website that isn’t fully encrypted. Consider using a separate credit card (with a lower credit limit) for internet purchases. Limit the amount of personal information you post on social media; verify that your information is available only to “friends” or people you know in real life.
Password protect your computer. Use anti-virus, anti-spyware software and a firewall on your computer. Set your computer’s operating system, web browser and security system to update automatically. Upgrade to a newer Microsoft operating system (Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8) if your computer is running Windows XP — Microsoft stopped providing security patches for Windows XP in April 2014. Avoid saving your username and password for automatic login to secure websites; be sure to log off when done. Change the name (SSID) of your wireless router from the default to something unique. Change your router’s pre-set password; new password should be at least 8 characters long. Turn off your router when you know you won’t be using it. Back up your files. Don’t leave your laptop unguarded, even for a minute — take it with you if you can, or use a cable to secure it to something heavy. Don’t keep passwords with your laptop or in its case. Consider carrying your laptop in something less obvious than a laptop case. Use a utility program to wipe your hard drive, or remove the hard drive and physically destroy it, before disposing of your computer.
Password protect your smartphone. Use dedicated shopping apps when shopping online instead of the phone’s browser. Log out of banking and other sensitive apps. Never click a box asking the app to save your username/ID and password. Switch off the feature that automatically connects your phone to nearby Wi-Fi networks. Clear your browser history. Close Bluetooth connections. Install security software and keep it updated. Don’t store passwords, PINs, Social Security numbers, credit card or bank account information on your smartphone. Delete all information and remove the SIM or memory card from your phone before disposing of it.
Don’t respond to email, text and phone messages that ask for personal information — legitimate companies don’t ask for information this way.
Don’t give your personal information over the phone, through the mail or on the internet unless you initiated the contact or you are sure you know whom you are dealing with. Don’t give a business your social security number just because they ask (financial and government services being the exceptions) — ask if you can use another identifier or just the last four digits of your Social Security number. Include only your name on your checks — don’t include your Social Security number, address or even your phone number. Review your bank and credit card statements and explanations of medical benefits from your health plan; report any mistakes or if statements don’t come on time.