SUMMARY: Identity theft has become such a pervasive problem that it affected about 15.4 million Americans in 2016. While you can't eliminate the possibility that someone will steal your identity, you can follow some rules that will help protect your financial data.By improving your financial data security, you make it less likely that a thief will steal your identity and commit fraud.
Start by following these four suggestions. The more carefully you protect yourself, the more security you will have.
Check Your Credit Report Annually
Federal law requires the major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) to give you a free copy of your credit report. To get the report, though, you must ask for it.
When you receive your credit report, check all of the information for accuracy. If you see any inaccurate information, then someone may have already stolen your identity. Other signs of identity theft include:
- Social Security numbers that don't belong to you
- Accounts that you didn't open
- Names of businesses or individuals you don't know
Credit bureaus don't always have the same information, so you should get an annual report from each them. Without all three, you won't have a complete picture of your credit history.
Read Your Credit Card Statement Carefully
Thieves don't necessarily need to steal your credit card to use your account. Many of them intercept credit card numbers when people make transactions while using public WiFi. Thieves can also get your credit card numbers from old statements, invoices and other documents.
Ideally, you should never use public WiFi when sending sensitive information to a website. There isn't much that you can do, though, to stop someone from going through a business's trash.
Checking your credit card statement carefully is one of the best ways to protect yourself from theft. Luckily, most credit card companies have exemplary consumer protection services. If you dispute a fraudulent charge, then your credit card company will most likely return the money to you. The sooner you dispute the charge, though, the easier it is to get a refund.
Of course, if you never read your credit card statement, you may never notice that someone else has charged small purchases to your account.
Shred Sensitive Documents
Never throw away or recycle a document that includes your Social Security or account numbers. Anyone could go through your trash to get the information they need to steal your identity and charge purchases to your name.
Buy an affordable paper shredder for your home so you can shred all documents that have sensitive information. Some paper shredders cost as little as $25. It's a tiny investment compared to the benefits that you get.
Beware of Phishing Attempts
Research shows that at least 78 percent of people say they are aware of the risks posed by phishing attempts. Despite this, nearly 50 percent of them click email links that could initiate phishing scams.
Phishing has become more advanced in recent years. Some cybercriminals still rely on basic phishing cons like the Nigerian Prince Scam. Others know that consumers have become too savvy to fall for such simple attempts.
Some of today's most successful phishing scams use emails and websites that look very similar to the ones used by institutions that you trust. You may, for instance, get a message that looks like it is from your bank. In reality, someone has spent time cleverly recreating your bank's email formatting to trick you into giving away sensitive information.
Always pay close attention to emails before you respond to them or follow any links. If anything seems out of the ordinary, you should ignore the message to protect yourself.
Remember that trustworthy organizations will never ask you to send your Social Security or account number via email.
Criminals hope that you will lower your guard so they can steal your financial data. Stay vigilant and never give them that satisfaction.