Protecting yourself against identity theft

Identity theft can impact your life substantially. According to a study by Javelin Strategy & Research, 12.7 million consumers became victims of identity fraud, and $16 billion stolen from fraud victims in 2014.

This crime has rippling effects when it occurs. Bankrate reported victims often find that their credit scores are damaged due to the activity they had nothing to do with. Your personal data is valuable in the black market. In fact, your date of birth is worth $11, your health insurance information is worth $20 and your social security number is $30.

The nightmarish consequences make it difficult for individuals to qualify for loans in the future and secure low interest rates when they do receive approval. 

Protecting yourself against identity theft is one of the best ways to keep your credit score accurate.  

"Individuals can steal documents that have personal information printed on your mail, and use it for fraud."

Understanding identity theft 
According to USA.gov, identity theft is defined as a crime where your personal information is stolen by another individual to commit fraud. Some information that may be valuable to a criminal includes: 

  • Social security number 
  • Full name 
  • Birth date 
  • Health insurance information 

There are a few different types of identity theft criminals often commit. Each type has various negative consequences for the victim. From your credit status to the time and money you will need to dedicate to restoring your credit history, identity theft is a substantial inconvenience. 

Collect mail regularly 
Make a habit of always getting the mail. Individuals can steal documents that have personal information printed on your mail, and use it for fraud.

While away, request for your mail to be held at the post office, or ask a close friend or relative to collect it during your absence. If you move, have all mail forwarded to a new secure address where you can regularly gather mail. 

Also make sure you know your billing cycles. If you notice a bill has not arrived, contact the sender to find out if a document is missing. 

Avoid simply discarding credit card offers, billing statements and other documents with personal information on them. Dumpster divers may fish these items out and use them to rob you of your identity. Shred, burn or tear up these documents whenever you throw them out. 

Use the Internet responsibly 
While the Internet provides you with a helpful tool for everything from online shopping to research, it also opens you up to a higher risk of identity theft. The Identity Theft Resource Center suggested installing firewall software to protect information. Keeping virus and spyware software programs updated ensures optimal protection. 

It is also important to be especially careful when using Wi-Fi connections. Unsecured connections increase the risk of identity theft and leave you vulnerable to hackers searching for personal information for their own financial gain. 

Avoid sharing too much and becoming comfortable with technology 
Bankrate noted that many millennials are at a higher risk of identity theft due to their comfort with technology and social media. 

"There's a certain amount of trust inherent with these systems" by millennials, said Tim Rohrbaugh, chief information security officer at Intersections Inc., reported Bankrate. "They are digital natives. A lot of stuff, they take for granted."

Being more private and guarding social media profiles will further protect users, but being more discerning when sharing personal information is critical. For example, plastering your Instagram with pictures of your dog and #ILoveSpike makes guessing the answer to your security question "What is your pet's name?" especially easy for criminals. 

Mobile apps also pose a threat to individuals who download and use them regularly.

"Millennials have to scrutinize the terms and conditions of every service they sign up for and take control of their privacy settings," said Garient Evans, vice president of solution services at ID Analytics, according to Bankrate. "There are ways to limit the exposure of that information."

Strengthen current passwords 
According to Identity Theft Killer, individuals should also use strong passwords for everything from personal social media accounts to bank profiles. Ensuring your passwords are difficult to uncover and changing them regularly will help bolster overall protection of your personal information.

Keep an eye on your bank statements and credit 
Regularly checking your statements and being aware of your credit score will help you avoid falling victim to this crime. If you notice suspicious activity or see that your score has dropped substantially, you can act quickly and minimize the impact of this crime if you are indeed a victim. 

If your purse or wallet is stolen or lost, cancel all credit cards, debit cards and arrange to have replacement documents that are stored in your wallet or purse canceled quickly. Avoid keeping your social security card with you at all times. Personal documents, like your birth certificate or passport, should be kept in a safe and secure location. A safety deposit box may be a worthwhile investment. 

Report identity theft 
Remember if you fall victim to this crime to file a police report. You should report it immediately to both the Federal Trade Commission and the police department, as it will be critical when you challenge items on your credit report you were not responsible for. Resolving problems with banks and creditors as soon and as efficiently as possible will eliminate the issues accompanying this type of crime. 

Protecting yourself against identity theft is your first line of defense and serves as the best way to avoid this crime.