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Identity theft is more than just an inconvenience. It’s a violating experience that can leave you feeling unsafe and vulnerable long after the initial shock. Given the sizable security breaches at major corporations like Equifax (145 million people affected) and T-Mobile (54 million), it’s become increasingly clear that a proactive approach is crucial to safeguarding our personal information.
Everybody’s assumption should be that their personal information, such as their name, address, phone and Social Security Number, is publically available. I did an extensive search trying to find out the best protective measures, but could not find an all-encompassing guide. As a result, I decided to write this ultimate guide on how to identity theft protection.
- 1. Understanding Identity Theft
- 2. Obtain a Free Annual Credit Report
- 3. Regularly check your credit reports and bank statements
- 4. Freeze your Credit In the Six Credit Reporting Companies
- 5. Embrace Credit Monitoring and Fraud Alerts
- 6. Secure Non-Financial Accounts and Records
- 7. Secure Your Online Presence
- 8. Prioritize Physical Safeguards
- 9. Beware of child identity theft and family identity theft
- 10. How should you respond to the theft of your identity?
- 11. Conclusion and Final Thoughts
1. Understanding Identity Theft
What is Identity Theft?
Identity theft is when someone maliciously acquires and uses another person’s personal information, such as their name, social security number, or credit card details, without permission. This information is then leveraged for various nefarious activities.
Types of Identity Theft
- Phishing Scams: Scammers trick individuals into giving out their personal information, often through seemingly legitimate emails or websites.
- Data Breaches: Large databases of personal information become compromised, often affecting millions.
- Physical Theft: Personal items such as wallets, purses, or mail can be stolen.
- Unsecure Internet Connections: Using unencrypted or open Wi-Fi can expose personal information.
Why is it important to have identity theft protection?
Victims of identity theft can face a range of consequences. Their credit scores may drop, they might be denied loans, or they might even get wrapped up in criminal activities they didn’t commit.
2. Obtain a Free Annual Credit Report
Begin by obtaining a free credit report from Annual Credit Report, a government-authorized platform that consolidates data from the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. This is the first step for identity theft protection.
A credit report offers insights into your credit activities:
- Businesses that extended you credit or loans.
- The total loan amount or credit card limits.
- Payment histories, including punctuality.
- Any outstanding debts or missed payments.
- Recent inquiries into your credit.
- Personal details, like your name, past and current addresses, employers, and any bankruptcy records.
Spotting unfamiliar transactions or credit cards can be a tell-tale sign of identity theft. If you stumble upon such discrepancies, you’ll need to take swift action to restore your identity.
3. Regularly check your credit reports and bank statements
It’s important to monitor your credit reports and bank statements regularly for any unauthorized activity. Frequent checks can help in the early detection of any suspicious activities. Keeping an eye on your financial statements and reconciling them against your own records can spot irregularities.
4. Freeze your Credit In the Six Credit Reporting Companies
While many are familiar with the ‘big three’ credit bureaus, there are actually six main credit reporting agencies. It’s advisable to freeze your credit with all six agencies. Freezing restricts access to your credit file, making it tougher for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name. If you need to apply for credit, you can temporarily unfreeze it.
The six credit reporting agencies are:
- Equifax: How to place a security freeze
- Experian: Security Freeze
- TransUnion: Locking Your Credit Report
- Chex Systems: Place Your Security Freeze at Chex Systems, Inc.
- Here you can also free new bank account creation
- Innovis: Security Freeze
- SageStream: Security Freeze
Benefits of Freezing Credit
- Stops identity thieves from opening new accounts.
- Maintains existing credit lines.
- Can be temporarily lifted if legitimate credit is needed.
5. Embrace Credit Monitoring and Fraud Alerts
- Credit monitoring: Platforms like Credit Karma and Mint allow users to keep an eye on their credit scores.
- Fraud alerts: Credit bureaus offer monitoring services that notify users of any anomalies or suspicious activities related to their credit. Such early detection services can be invaluable in preventing extensive damage from identity theft.
- Contrary to some beliefs, services like LifeLock might not be as effective.
6. Secure Non-Financial Accounts and Records
- Protect the information that you have provided to Utility and Telecommunication companies: Apply through the National Consumer Telecom & Utilities Exchange (NCTUE) to get a report that includes all the information that you have provided to Telecom and Utility companies.
- Prevent tax fraud: Setup your IRS online account to prevent someone else from doing so and sign up for an IRS Identity Protection PIN to prevent someone else from filing fraudulent tax returns for refunds as you.
- Protect your Social Security: Setup their Social Security online account to prevent someone else from doing so.
- Prevent others from receiving your unemployment benefits: Register with your state unemployment agencies.
7. Secure Your Online Presence
- Personal Information Scrubbing: Services like DeleteMe can help remove your personal data from various online directories.
- Password Management: Use password managers to store and generate strong, unique passwords for each online service you use.
- Two-Factor Authentication: A second layer of security, where accessing accounts requires not just a password but a secondary code, usually sent to your phone.
- Security Questions: Be creative with your answers to the security questions in order to bolster online safety, e.g. the answer for “Where did you go to school” could be “TweetyBirdy#123$”
8. Prioritize Physical Safeguards
- Opting for Paperless: Reduce the amount of physical mail with sensitive information.
- Document Disposal: Shred all vital documents before disposal.
- Protective Measures: Limit the sharing of personal details, especially SSN. Also, locking your mailbox or using secure mail services can prevent theft.
- Mobile phone: Keeping your mobile phone secure is equally crucial. Locking SIM transfers is a noteworthy preventive measure.
- USPS Informed Delivery: Utilizing this service to track incoming mail can also thwart potential identity thieves.
9. Beware of child identity theft and family identity theft
Each family member, from children to seniors, can be at risk. Especially child identity theft can be very painful for the family.
- Ensure that everyone understands the importance of identity protection and follows recommended practices.
- Extend these identity theft protection measures to your family – your spouse, children, parents, and other close ones.
10. How should you respond to the theft of your identity?
If you suspect you’ve become a victim, swift action is crucial:
- Contact all credit bureaus to place a fraud alert.
- Review your credit reports for unauthorized activities.
- File a report with the FTC’s IdentityTheft.gov and local police.
- Reach out to compromised institutions, from banks to service providers.
- Contact the Social Security Administration to block electronic access to your account.
Victims should be extra vigilant post-breach. This involves:
- Closely monitoring accounts
- Setting up additional security measures
- Staying informed about potential risks
11. Conclusion and Final Thoughts
In the digital era, data has become one of the most valuable commodities, making identity theft a lucrative crime. While the challenges are ever-evolving, by being informed and proactive, you can greatly reduce your risk and ensure that your personal information remains safe and secure. You should feel confident that after following the steps in this guide, your identity will be safe.