How To Prevent Identity Theft

The best way to avoid identity theft is to be careful with your information. Most victims of identity theft never figure out how their information was obtained. However, good control over your personal information helps minimize the chance that it can be stolen and misused.

How Your Information Is Obtained

Identity thieves obtain personal information in a variety of ways, most quite simple, including:

  • Acts of Theft: usually of purses, wallets, or mail;
  • Dumpster Diving: Rummaging through your garbage, or the dumpster at a business, for discarded items containing personal information;
  • Tricking you into providing personal information online, particularly by email or through a website, but also by telephone;
  • Obtaining or misappropriating information from legitimate businesses or employee files;
  • Pretending to be a new creditor, so as to obtain your credit report;
  • "Shoulder surfing": looking over your shoulder as you use your personal information in a public place, or eavesdropping on your phone calls, and making note of it;
  • Public Internet connections: intercepting information that you transmit over an unsecured Wi-Fi connection, especially a network in a public location;
  • Poor security practices: such as discarding documents that contain personal information where they might be retrieved from the trash, using low-security passwords, keeping your passwords in writing near your computer, using easily guessed information for security questions to reset online passwords; and
  • Promises of prizes or awards: contacting you by email or telephone and promising that you have won a prize or award, conditioned upon your providing personal or financial information.

Transactions That Create Risk

Many common transactions can put you at increased risk for identity theft. That is not to say that these actions should be avoided - but you should exercise due care to protect your personal and account information. Example transactions which can put your information at risk:

  • Online banking;
  • Online purchases of goods or services;
  • Discarding pre-printed credit card applications without destroying them;
  • Storing personal information in your computer;
  • Using a cellular phone;
  • Using an unsecure Internet connection;
  • Using your Social Security number for identification

Safeguarding Your Information

You can help safeguard your personal information by being conscious of when and how you use that information, or provide it to others.

  • Your Social Security Number: Memorize your number rather than carrying it with you.

  • PIN Numbers: Memorize your PIN numbers. Don't write them down, or carry them in your wallet. Don't print your Social Security number on your checks.

  • Passwords: Protect your personal information and financial accounts behind passwords that are relatively secure. Don't use "easy to guess" passwords, such as your date of birth. Whenever possible use multi-level password protections to make it difficult for people to hack your password.

  • Credit Reports: periodically obtain and review your credit reports from the major credit bureaus, or a combined report reflecting your information from all three bureaus.

  • Secure Your Computer: Use firewall software, and download the latest operating system updates, to minimize the chances of an intrusion into your personal computer. Securing your computer is even more important if you have a high speed Internet connection.

  • Email Inquiries: Never provide your personal or financial information in response to an email inquiry, and never send that information by email. If you believe a legitimate business (such as eBay or Citibank) has requested that information by email, go to your account page on their website to provide it. Type the URL into the browser yourself - do not follow a link in the email. Most of the time you will find that, no matter how real it looked, the email was fake and was designed to defraud you.

  • Email Attachments: An email attachment may be a worm or virus, which is designed to secretly obtain personal information from your computer and relay it to others, or to open a security hole in your computer so that others can later access your hard drive. Beware of suspicious email attachments, even if they appear to be from somebody you know. Use anti-virus software, and keep it updated.

  • Website Inquiries: Do not provide personal or financial information online except through a "secure transaction". While not all businesses offer secure transactions, by now most do. You can tell if a page is secure because the "lock" icon at the bottom of your browser window will appear as a closed padlock. Also, secure URL's usually start with "https://" as opposed to simply "http://", with the "s" standing for "secure".

  • Telephone Inquiries: Do not give your personal or financial information by telephone, unless you initiated the contact.

  • Credit Card Applications: If you receive a credit card application in the mail and don't intend to complete it, shred it or tear it into pieces before you discard it.

  • Credit Cards: Sign your credit cards as soon as you receive them. If you are expecting a new or replacement card which does not arrive in a timely manner, contact the financial institution and report that it has not arrived.

  • Lost or Stolen Credit Cards: Report the loss immediately. In most cases, this will limit your liability to $50 per credit card, or $500 for a debit card. Credit card companies will sometimes waive the $50 amount if you make a prompt report.

  • Credit Card and Bank Statements: Watch your credit card and bank statements for unusual or unauthorized activity.

  • U.S. Mail: Don't allow mail to accumulate in your mailbox, but retrieve it soon after it is delivered. Deposit outgoing mail in an official mailbox; avoid leaving it in your mailbox for any extended period (especially overnight or over a weekend). If you are going to be away, have the Post Office hold your mail or have it collected by a trusted neighbor or friend.

  • Retain Your Receipts: Don't discard bank, credit card, or transaction receipts in public areas.

  • Personal Information: Tear up or shred any documents which contain personal information before you throw them away.

  • Monitor Your Billing Address: If your monthly statement for a bank, credit card, or other account does not arrive as expected, confirm that nobody has changed your billing address with the issuing company. If you learn that a billing address has been changed without your authorization, immediately report that the change was unauthorized and that an unauthorized person may be using your account.

Copyright © 2004 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 7, 2018.