In this day of ubiquitous digital information, it seems like it’s easier than ever to have your identity stolen. The Federal Trade Commission reportedly received 490,000 identity theft complaints in 2015, up from 341,898 complaints the previous year. In order to help keep your identity safe, it’s important to stay vigilant with your personal information.
Here are some things you can start avoiding immediately.
1. Giving Out Personal Information Over Phone or Email
It’s not a good idea to give out personal information if you are on the receiving end of any call. Also, email is an insecure way to send information, and most legitimate companies would never request information be sent to them this way.
Example: the Internal Revenue Service will never call or email you — their correspondence is done via U.S. mail. If someone calls and says they are with the IRS and wants to know things like your Social Security number, hang up — it’s a scam.
Similarly, a bank or other financial institution most likely isn’t going to call and ask for your personal information. However, if it’s you initiating the call to a bank or other company, you may be asked to give your Social Security number, address, mother’s maiden name or PIN number as part of the way to identify yourself.
2. Using Weak Passwords
It’s not uncommon for most people to have dozens of online accounts and it may be pretty hard to keep track of all the passwords. You may fall prey to the temptation to make your passwords easy to remember, but it’s a good idea to curb that impulse. While any password can be discovered using a brute-force attack, make yours so difficult that the thieves move on to easier targets. Many security experts recommend that your password be at least eight characters, using one letter, one number, one symbol, and one uppercase letter.
In addition, avoid using the same password for everything — should one password be successfully hacked, you can bet hackers will use it to try other accounts. Even if your password is complex, it pays to change passwords every few months so if your account is breached, the thieves won’t always have ready access to your accounts.
3. Failing to Secure Paper Documents
You’ve probably heard this bit of advice before, but it bears repeating: shred all documents containing personal information that you no longer need. Secure your mailbox and never leave bills with checks inside a mailbox overnight to be picked up the following day. If you’re going on vacation, it’s a good idea to put your mail on hold or have a trusted family member or friend pick it up for you so it doesn’t sit in your mailbox.
4. Ignoring Your Credit Reports
According to an Equifax study from earlier this year, 40% of Americans are not pulling their credit reports each year, even though they are entitled to annual free copies. You can view your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — for free each year by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com.
Keeping a watchful eye on your credit reports can alert you to early signs of identity theft, like seeing new accounts you did not open or inquiries on your credit report that you do not recognize. If you spot these signs of trouble, you should immediately notify the creditor of the problem. It’s also a good idea to file a police report and notify the FTC. The earlier you intervene, the better. (You can also keep an eye out for sudden credit score changes by viewing two of your credit scores, updated monthly, for free on Credit.com.)
If you have young children, it’s a good idea to pull their credit files as well. Thieves attempting to cultivate new identities will often use an underage person’s information, as the theft may go undetected for years. Parents can request credit report copies for their children under the age of 18 to make sure their identities are not being abused.
5. Foregoing Anti-Virus Software on Your Computer
While no anti-virus software can totally protect you from malware, it’s wise not to skip on this piece of software. Once installed on your computer, malicious malware can steal passwords and other sensitive information stored on your computer.
If you get a call from someone who claims your computer was hacked or has been infected with a virus, this is also most definitely a scam — these people will try and get your credit card information from you under the pretense of installing software on your computer. If they do install software, the software could also steal other information on your computer.
6. Keeping Your Phone or Tablet Unlocked
Consumer Reports reported that 3.1 million phones were lost in 2014. No matter how you get separated from your phone, your unlocked phone is a treasure trove of information. Passwords may be cached in your phone’s web browser, allowing thieves to gain easy access to online accounts; some people even keep their lists of passwords on their phones. Anyone who has the phone may be able to impersonate you online at social media sites, allowing them to request more personal data from your social media contacts.