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Identity fraud has become a huge concern — and with good reason. In 2016, 15.4 million people were victims of ID theft, according to Javelin Strategy & Research. Meanwhile, hacking incidents like the one at Equifax continue to increase.
While you can’t protect yourself completely from ID theft, there are important steps you can take to minimize your chances of becoming a target.
Identity fraud: An overview
When you think of identity theft, you probably think of someone stealing your credit cards or possibly opening new lines of credit in your name. But there are many crimes that someone can commit by using your personal information.
For instance, a thief can use your Social Security number to file a false tax return, obtain employment or collect government benefits in your name. These crimes can injure your credit rating, and it can take time and money to undo the damage. Your best course is to try to stop identity fraud before it happens.
Steps to stop identity fraud
You can sign up for an identity theft protection service, but the most effective measures against crime are things you can do yourself:
- Monitor your credit. You can get free credit reports and check up on your credit history at myBankrate. Monitor your credit to make sure that no new accounts have been opened that you don’t recognize. In the meantime, check your credit cards and bank statements weekly for fraudulent transactions.
- Ignore unsolicited requests for your information. If someone asks for your name, birth date, Social Security number, credit or bank account number by phone, online or mail, don’t respond.
- Avoid a paper trail. It’s safer to receive bills online than in the mail, but if you use the mail, get a locking mailbox or PO box. When you are out of town, put a hold on your mail. And make sure you shred any papers containing your personal information.
- Keep your devices safe. Use strong, complex passwords to protect your devices. Install firewalls and anti-virus protection on your computers, too, and avoid using public Wi-Fi to make transactions or view your accounts.
- Don’t give too much away on social media. Identity thieves will use information about your life to answer “challenge” questions about you to gain access to your accounts. Instead, review your privacy settings on social media sites and avoid posting such details as your address and telephone number.
- Take extreme caution with your Social Security number. This number is the golden ticket for identity thieves. Never carry it with you, and give it out only when absolutely necessary.
What if your data has been compromised?
If your information has been exposed in a data breach, consider placing a credit freeze with each of the three credit agencies so that no one can open new credit in your name. Doing so costs about $10 per bureau, and you will have to unfreeze your account if you want to apply for a new line of credit.
If you have already become a victim of ID theft, the government’s IdentityTheft.gov website will walk you through the steps you should take to file a report and start a recovery plan. You should also contact one of the three credit bureaus to place a free fraud alert. (The company you alert will tell the other two.)
- Equifax Credit Report Assistance
- Phone: 888-766-0008
- Experian Fraud Alert
- Phone: 888-397-3742
- TransUnion Fraud Center
- Phone: 800-680-7289
By taking these measures, even if you have not stopped identity fraud, you can minimize the damage.