8 tips to protect your personal information

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The Social Security number is the gateway to your identity, but criminals also want your account numbers as well as other pieces of personal information useful for committing identity theft. Limiting the exposure of your personal information will help guard against potential fraud, and in the process cut down on unwanted marketing in some cases.

Secure your ID
  1. Screen charities
  2. Avoid marketing
  3. Be wary on social networking sites
  4. Job hunt online safely
  5. Secure your computer
  6. Limit physical access to your SSN
  7. Don’t flag important mail
  8. Shred documents

Screen charities

If someone claiming to represent a charitable organization calls you, ask the caller to send you written information about the charity instead of giving out credit card information over the phone. “If you get any pushback whatsoever, say, ‘You know what? If it wasn’t important enough to send in writing so I have a right to review it, then it’s not important enough for me to respond to this phone call,'” says Adam Levin, chairman of Identity Theft 911.

Avoid marketing

People unnecessarily give out personal information when they apply for supermarket club cards and fill out product warranty cards. “Warranty cards ask for date of birth, educational level, income level, number of children living in the home, sometimes occupation — you don’t need to give that information to get warranty protection for your clock radio,” says Jack Vonder Heide, president and CEO of Technology Briefing Centers. “That information is used for marketing purposes.”

Experts also caution against providing your telephone number when prompted at a retail point of sale, unless it’s necessary to place an order. While phone numbers are typically used for marketing, it might be possible for someone to find your store charge account with a phone number, says Vonder Heide.

Don’t share too much on social networking sites

Criminals can use social networking sites to commit identity theft if enough personal information gets posted — not to mention that the personal information you post makes it easier to be stalked. Besides your address, avoid putting your full date of birth on your profile, suggests Vonder Heide, because that’s a piece of information that a thief needs to steal your identity.

Job hunt online safely

Until a company is ready to hire you, don’t furnish a potential employer with your Social Security number. Do a thorough background check on companies before submitting your resume and check the privacy policies of online job boards before posting your information. “You may put your information out on a Web site and they may have a privacy policy that says that they’re allowed to sell that information to anyone they choose for any purpose they choose,” says Vonder Heide.

Make sure your computer is secure before surfing the Web.

Limit physical access to your SSN

Don’t store your Social Security number or card in easy-access places, such as your wallet, in your cell phone or in the glove compartment of your car. Make sure you don’t have your SSN printed on your checks or used as your driver’s license number.

Don’t flag important mail

If you’re mailing something that contains sensitive information, don’t leave it in an unsecured mailbox. “When you put up that little red flag, that’s a magnet. Either get a locking mailbox, where the only people that have a key are you and the post person, or take it to the big secure mailbox on the corner,” says Levin.

Shred documents using a crosscut shredder

Make confetti of “anything that you have that is a document that has any information on you whatsoever that might be considered personal that you’re not interested in keeping around anymore,” says Levin.

Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, provides a general rule of thumb for revealing personal information: “Give out your information on a need-to-know basis. Before you give out your personal information, figure out: Why does this person need my information, and how much of that information do they need?”