How to Protect Your Identity

TERRI CULLEN
8/12/2007 – Identity theft can wreak havoc with your life. But there are numerous things you can do to make it harder for scamsters, tricksters and downright criminals to get their hands on your sensitive personal and financial information.

A lot of what you can do to defend yourself is simply a matter of training yourself to think like a data thief — and then getting in the habit of taking appropriate defensive measures.

Here are some ways to get started.

What Goes Out

The easiest way to begin protecting yourself from identity theft is to be sure you don’t hand the thieves your personal data on a silver platter — or in a trash bag. Never let a piece of paper with any information that a thief could use leave your house in one piece. That obviously includes any financial or medical statements, but it also should apply to preapproved credit-card offers and other solicitations.

When you open a piece of mail, ask yourself right on the spot: Could this be useful to an identity thief? If the answer is even remotely “yes,” shred it.

Don’t think of a good-quality paper shredder as an expense, but as an investment, just like the locks on your doors. And make sure the shredder you buy is a “cross-cut” shredder, not the less expensive horizontal shredder, so thieves won’t be able to piece the papers back together.

Disposing of paperwork away from home is another habit you’ll need to break. It may clutter up your wallet or your purse to hang on to receipts and other paperwork that bears your personal stamp, but it’s worth it to haul that stuff home and shred it.

Putting something in the mail is another source of potential danger. When you pay bills with checks and then place the envelopes in your mailbox for your friendly mail carrier to pick up later in the day, you’re offering an identity thief a welcome cash infusion. All he or she has to do is arrive ahead of the mail carrier and lift your waiting mail, take it home, use acetone to erase the payee’s name and then make the check out to whomever the thief pleases.

Especially for outgoing mail with sensitive information, hang on to it until you’re making a grocery run, and then drop it in a U.S. Postal Service box.

What Comes In

Incoming mail is just as vulnerable as outgoing, especially when you receive a new credit card or a box of checks from your bank. The obvious solution is a mailbox that locks. A post office box, while somewhat inconvenient, offers good protection, too.

It’s also a good idea to learn your mail carrier’s routine and get to the box to retrieve your mail as soon it’s dropped off.

More importantly, though, you can reduce your vulnerability to identity theft by tackling the problem at the source and reducing the amount of mail you receive.

To stem the tide of preapproved credit offers pouring into your mailbox, you can opt out of receiving the solicitations by calling 888-5-OPTOUT. You’ll be asked by a recorded message to provide, among other information, your Social Security number, as a means to identify you. Don’t let it spook you; the service is secure.

Many financial institutions would prefer to communicate with you online rather than preparing and mailing statements. Take them up on that offer. It’s good for you because it’s one less way in which thieves can get at your personal data and it’s good for them because it saves postage and printing costs.

If you insist on receiving paper statements in the mail, jot down on your calendar when you expect to receive those statements. If the statements are more than a few days late, contact the sender to determine if there was some unexpected delay in preparing and mailing the statements.

Protect and Detect

If you’re thinking like a thief, you already know you don’t leave your checkbook in the car while you run into the grocery store for a gallon of milk. But you shouldn’t leave it on your desk at work, either, or even in a desk drawer unless it’s locked. Ditto with deposit slips or financial statements.

Even when you’re home, such information should be secured out of sight of the prying eyes of friends and family members, house cleaners, laborers or anyone else who has access to your home. Identity theft is often perpetrated by people known to the victims.

Prevention is the best defense, but it’s also important to find out as quickly as possible when your data have been compromised. Between bank savings, checking accounts, credit-card accounts and investment accounts, it can be downright tough to keep a constant eye on the ebb and flow of your financial life. But monitoring your financial accounts on a regular basis is crucial to beating identity theft.

One day, you might see a credit-card charge that you can’t quite remember making, or a check suddenly shows up on your bank account that you know you didn’t write.

Act Quickly

A quick call to your financial institution’s toll-free emergency hotline and bingo! You’ve uncovered a theft early and will likely avoid having to pay for the charge yourself. If months have gone by before you notice a questionable charge on one of your credit-card accounts, you may get stuck paying for it.

Thankfully, technology has made it easy to monitor financial accounts. Most financial institutions offer online access, where you can view up-to-the-minute transactions and stay on top of your accounts.

Set aside a few minutes every day to take a quick look at all your financial accounts to ensure no fraudulent transactions slip thro

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