Protect yourself against identity theft

Protect yourself against identity theft

More than 13 million Americans were victims of identity-theft fraud last year. The number of victims has increased by half a million people since 2012. Today, thievery takes many forms, including credit card fraud, false credit applications, fraudulent bank withdrawals, and Social Security and medical care fraud. Victims’ losses totaled about $21 billion last year.

Consumers have no control over large-scale, nationwide data security breaches at retail stores like those that have happened in recent years. You can, however, take action to protect your personal information. These steps make it harder for thieves to target you.

How to Avoid Becoming a Victim of Identity Theft

Identity thieves will use any means of communication to get you to divulge personal information. Here are four ways to limit their access:

Register your home and cell phone numbers with the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Do Not Call registry or call 1-888-382-1222.

Contact the Direct Marketing Association’s (DMA) Mail Preference Service to get your address removed from marketing lists.

Unsubscribe from unwanted marketing emails and newsletters, and register your email with the DMA’s email preference service.

Ask to be removed from the pre-approved credit lists that the three major credit bureaus sell to credit card companies. Request removal at OptOutPrescreen or call 1-888-5-OPT-OUT.

Stay on top of your credit record. You are entitled to receive one free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus every year. Annual Credit Report is the only authorized government website for requesting reports from all three bureaus. (Or call 1-877-322-8228.) You also can contact each bureau individually at TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. Carefully review each report for name misspellings, incorrect addresses or credit accounts that you do not recognize. Address errors immediately.

Safeguard your personal information. Never give out your Social Security number, or bank account or other financial information to someone who calls on the phone or contacts you via email. Shred documents containing personal information, especially credit offers you receive in the mail. Do not carry personal identification numbers (PINs) or your Social Security card in your wallet or purse. Use a secure, lockable mailbox to receive bills and send checks.

Be password-savvy. Your passwords for online sites should be a complex mix of letters, numbers and symbols. Do not use something that is easy to figure out, such as birth dates or a maiden name. You should have a unique password for each online account and change it monthly. If this is too much to remember (and it is for many people), sign up for a secure password management service via LastPass or Password Genie. You also can password-protect credit cards and bank accounts. This prevents thieves from fraudulently withdrawing money or running up credit charges.

If You Are a Victim of Identity Theft

Take these steps immediately if you suspect or know that you are a victim of identity theft.

Request a fraud alert. Ask one of the three credit reporting agencies to put an initial fraud alert on your credit report. The agency must tell the other two companies to do the same. This alert tells lenders and creditors to take extra steps to verify your identity before offering credit. Fraud alerts are free and last for 90 days (but can be renewed). You also will have the option to request a free credit report from each credit bureau. A security freeze takes things one step further by preventing new-to-you creditors from accessing your credit report.

File an identity theft report. This FTC report is the first step in removing fraudulent information from your credit report. It also extends the amount of time for fraud alerts and halts companies trying to collect payment for fraudulent purchases. First, report the theft to your local law enforcement office and get a copy of the police report. Then, file your report online or call 1-877-ID-THEFT.

In today’s digital age, no one is 100 percent safe from the possibility of identity theft. Senior citizens are often easy targets. Still, one survey found that the demographic most at risk are adults ages 18 to 24. The reason: This age group shares a great deal of personal information on social media sites and moves frequently. Regardless of age or income, it is important to stay vigilant about your credit standing.

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