Avoiding Identity Theft

April 15, 2015

ThiefIdentity theft is on the rise. Every two seconds, another American consumer becomes a victim of identity fraud, according to a recent Javelin Strategy & Research identity fraud report. Over 83 million personal records were exposed last year alone, according to the Identify Theft Resource Center.

In this age of instantaneously available data, it's almost too easy for your personal information to fall into the wrong hands. Fortunately, there are several precautionary measures you can take—both on and offline—to ensure that your identity remains protected.

Staying Safe Online

With the rapid growth of technology, Internet scams are everywhere. They are also some of the easiest to pull off since an invisible perpetrator acts behind the scenes while unsuspecting victims are going about business as usual. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that nine out of 10 identity theft victims know nothing about the offender's identity.

Tips for maximizing your online security:

Watch for impersonators. Make sure you know exactly who is getting your personal information, and avoid giving it out over the Internet unless you've initiated contact or know exactly whom you're doing business with. If a company claims to have an account with you and asks for personal info, don't reply or click on anything in the email since doing so could potentially expose you to a virus or spyware. Instead, contact the company directly through its customer service email or number. By the same token, immediately delete all emails with claims of job offers or charity needs that ask for your account information or for a direct money wire.

Keep your browser secure. Use encryption software that guards your online transactions. A "lock" icon in your browser bar means your information will be safe when transmitted. Look for this lock anytime you're sending personal information.

Avoid automatic logins. It may be convenient, but avoid features that save your username and password, and instead, always log off when finished with the website. Also, be sure to use strong, creative passwords that will be hard to decode. Try using symbols or swapping numbers for letters.

Don't overshare on social media. Before you post, keep in mind that sharing too much personal information can turn into an identify thief's jackpot. Consider limiting access on your social accounts to people you already know, and never post your full name, contact information, Social Security number or account numbers.

Dispose of personal info. Before you dispose of or give away your computer or mobile device, permanently get rid of everything stored on it. Transfer all contents to a new external device. Use a wipe utility program to overwrite a computer hard drive, and remove the SIM card from a mobile device. Erase all contacts and photos as well as call and text message history.

Staying Safe Offline

Although it may be far easier and far more common to steal personal information from behind a computer screen, identity theft can still occur the good old-fashioned way as well.

Tips for safeguarding your offline security:

Store all your pertinent financial records in a safe place. Find a safe place inside your home. You should also limit what you carry with you when you go out. Unless you know you'll need them, leave your Social Security and medical insurance cards at home, or make copies and carry those with you instead.

Drop your mail off at the post office. It's so easy to simply raise the flag on your mailbox, indicating to the postman that you have outgoing mail, but it is also an invitation for identity thieves. Similarly, promptly retrieve any mail that arrives in your inbox. If you'll be away for several days, have someone you trust pick up your mail or request a hold mail service.

Shred old important documents. Put any documents you no longer need containing any sort of personal information through the shredder, including receipts, credit card offers or applications, old charge cards, medical statements, insurance forms and even prescription pill labels.

Ask questions. When asked to provide your Social Security number, whether it's at a business, school or doctor's office, don't be afraid to ask why they need it, how they'll protect it and whether there are any consequences for you opting out of sharing it. While oftentimes sharing Social Security information for tax reporting or credit checks is fine, it's always good to be sure.

Whether on or offline, you should always attempt to securely store and dispose of your personal information, know whom you're dealing with, ask questions before deciding to share personal information and maintain appropriate security on your devices. Properly protecting your personal information will help your peace of mind and reduce your risk of identity theft.