For 12 years in a row, identity theft has been the top consumer complaint to the Federal Trade Commission — in 2011, there were 279,156 identity theft complaints filed. There is no air-tight method of preventing the crime totally, however there are steps you can take to make sure you’re not making yourself an easy target for identity thieves. Here are five good habits to adopt that can reduce your chances of fraud.
Buy a shredder, and use it. Shredding documents might seem to be a bit of an outdated strategy in an era where financial transactions are increasingly electronic. But dumpster-diving identity thieves still exist, and if they can get a hold of sensitive documents like bank statements and expired credit cards, they can do some real damage. Get a cross-cut shredder — simple “strip” shredders produce pieces that could hypothetically be reassembled — and use it whenever you think you’re throwing out something sensitive.
Keep hard copies in a safe place. Sensitive financial information you’re throwing out should obviously be shredded, but the data you’re holding onto should be kept secure. Your Social Security number, for example, shouldn’t be kept in your wallet (try to memorize it), and the Federal Trade Commission recommends not using it as your driver’s license number. And the FTC also recommends keeping personal information in a secure location in your home, where it can’t be stolen by an opportunistic family member, contractor or roommate.
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Be smart about email. Simply having an antivirus running in the background on your home PC isn’t enough to protect your electronic data from hackers. Many instances of data theft rely not on complicated cyber attacks, but on exploiting the naïveté of users like you. Such “social engineering” attacks often take the form of a phishing email purporting to be from a bank, retailer or other company with which you’ve done business. Usually they’ll ask you to send in some sensitive account information, or perhaps direct you to a fake site that looks a lot like your online banking setup and prompts you to enter your username and password. To protect customers against such attacks, most companies have a policy of never calling or emailing you to ask for account information, so if you get any such requests, treat it with the highest level of scrutiny and don’t hesitate to call your bank directly.
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Use a credit card. You won’t be able to prevent all forms of identity theft; a waiter who disappears with your card or a lesser-known online merchant could both be selling off your card data to the highest bidder and making purchases on your account. That’s why you should almost always use a credit card, which offers more fraud protection than a debit card. “The safest way to shop on the Internet is with a credit card,” advises the Identity Theft Resource Center. “In the event something goes wrong, you are protected under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act,” which caps your liability at $50. Debit cards make it easier to track your spending, but with damages capped by law at $500, it’s easy to see which payment method affords you more protection.
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Monitor your accounts. This one is a no-brainer, but we’re guessing a lot of you are only checking your accounts once a month, when the statement comes. Online banking allows you to check in on your debit and credit card accounts 24/7, and you should take full advantage, as the sooner you spot a purchase you didn’t make, the sooner you can put a stop to the fraud. And while you’re at it, take heed of these other warning signs that your account has been compromised.
Image: CarbonNYC, via Flickr