10 Practical Tips to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft

identity theft protection

Is your personal identity at risk for theft? According to the California-based cybersecurity company Proofpoint, one in three U.S. consumers have been the victim of identity theft. If someone steals your personal identity, they could use it to file false tax returns, open credit cards or send fake bills to medical providers. While this criminal activity isn’t expected to fade anytime soon, there are steps you can take to secure your personal information and prevent identity theft.

1) Collect Mail Daily

Avoid leaving your mail sitting in the mailbox for an extended period and, instead, collect it daily. Identity theft often begins with stolen mail. Identity thieves will drive around neighborhoods collecting residents’ mail, which they’ll use to steal the residents’ identities. By collecting your mail daily, preferably when or shortly after it’s delivered, you can rest assured knowing that it won’t be used for malicious purposes like identity theft.

2) Check Your Credit Annually

Checking your credit at least once a year with the three major credit reporting bureaus — Experian, TransUnion and Equifax — will lower your risk of identity theft. If someone tries to open a credit card or line of credit in your name, you’ll see the unauthorized activity listed in your credit report. Under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) enacted by Congress in 2003, U.S. consumers are entitled to a free credit report from each of the three aforementioned bureaus once a year by visiting annualcrediteport.com.

3) Use a Credit Monitoring Service

In addition to checking your credit once a year, subscribing to a credit monitoring service can lower your risk of identity theft. Offered by both credit bureaus and third-party companies, credit monitoring services are designed to track your credit usage while evaluating it for signs of fraudulent activity.

If someone on the opposite side of the country opens a credit card in your name, for example, a credit monitoring service may flag it for fraud. The credit monitoring service will then notify you of the fraudulent activity so that you can further investigate and take the appropriate action.

4) Beware of Phishing Emails

When checking your inbox, beware of phishing emails. Even if an email appears to represent a legitimate company, it could be an attempt to collect your personal information for use in identity theft.

Phishing emails are designed to trick victims into submitting their personal information. They look like emails from legitimate businesses, so if a phishing email asks a victim to log in to their online account, the victim may oblige. Of course, entering the correct username and password won’t give the victim access to his or her account. The login pages used in conjunction with phishing emails are fake; they simply log the victim’s username and password when he or she enters it.

5) Create Strong Passwords

Of course, creating strong passwords can help protect you from identity theft. Millions of consumers are guilty of using weak passwords out of convenience. After all, it’s easier to remember a single short password for all your online accounts rather than a unique and long password for each of your accounts. Neglecting to create strong passwords, however, leaves you vulnerable to identity theft. Your accounts could be compromised if you use weak passwords, and depending on the personal information stored in your accounts, it could lead to identity theft.

6) Enable Two-Factor Authentication

A strong password alone doesn’t offer a sufficient level of protection against account intrusion and subsequently, identity theft. For maximum protection, you should enable two-factor authentication on your accounts. Also known as two-step authentication, this feature adds an extra step to the login process. You’ll still have to enter your username and password, but two-step authentication requires you to enter additional information, such as a PIN sent to your email or mobile device, as well.

7) Secure Your SSN

To protect against identity theft, you must secure your Social Security Number (SSN). Consisting of a unique string of nine numbers, your SSN is tied to your personal credit. Whether you’re applying for a mortgage, a car loan or a credit card, you’ll have to provide the lender with your SSN; all your personal credit transactions are tracked using your SSN.

If you carelessly provide your SSN to businesses without first verifying their credentials, you’ll place yourself at a greater risk for identity theft. If someone calls you claiming to be a representative from a business and asks for your SSN, research the business online to ensure it’s legitimate. Only after verifying the business’s legitimacy should you call the business back, using their advertised phone number and not the number that originally called you, to provide them with your SSN.

8) Lock Your Smartphone

Don’t forget to lock your smartphone. According to a Pew survey, over one in four Americans don’t lock their smartphone. Whether you own an Apple- or Android-powered smartphone, neglecting to lock it will leave your personal information vulnerable to theft. If you lose your smartphone, all the data stored on it will become compromised. For greater protection against identity theft, lock your smartphone using a PIN, password, pattern or biometrics.

9) Install Anti-Virus Software

Installing anti-virus software on your computer, smartphone and other devices will protect against malware that could be used to steal your identity. Identity thieves use a variety of channels to steal consumers’ identities, one of which is malware. Keylogging malware, for instance, will record your keystrokes. If you log in to your online bank account, keylogging malware will capture your credentials. With anti-virus software installed, your devices will be protected against keyloggers and other types of malware.

10) Use a VPN

Using a virtual private network (VPN) will lower your risk of identity theft. A VPN is an encrypted tunneling service that’s used to protect against online data theft and offer Internet Protocol (IP) confidentiality. Rather than visiting websites directly, you can visit them through a VPN. You’ll log in to the VPN, which encrypts all your internet traffic. As long as you’re connected to a VPN, any personal information you send to or receive from a website will be safe.

When ignored, identity theft can have disastrous consequences on your financial and emotional well-being. While scammers and other nefarious individuals steal consumers’ identities for different reasons, they all involve malicious intent. And once your identity has been stolen, you’ll face a long and difficult road to recovery.