11 Ways to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft

11 Ways to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft article image.

Experian, TransUnion and Equifax now offer all U.S. consumers free weekly credit reports through AnnualCreditReport.com.

Every year, more than a million Americans report being victimized by identity theft. This crime occurs when somebody nabs your personal or financial information without your permission, and potentially uses it to make purchases or open accounts in your name.

Fortunately, you can take steps to help avoid identity theft. Let's go over 11 ways you can better protect yourself from identity theft.

1. Password-Protect Your Devices

A small but worrisome number of smartphone owners in the U.S. (16%) say they never use a security feature to unlock their phone, such as a passcode, fingerprint or facial recognition, according to 2023 data from the Pew Research Center. If you're part of this group, you might want to reconsider your security measures.

Failing to protect your smartphone, tablet or other electronic device puts your personal and financial data at risk. This data might include passwords and banking information, for example.

2. Use a Password Manager

A 2022 poll commissioned by Google found that nearly two-thirds (65%) of U.S. adults reuse passwords for different online accounts. Using the same password for electronic devices and financial accounts puts your information at greater risk. In fact, all it might take is guessing just one password for a fraudster to access some or all of your accounts.

To track what should be a unique password for every online account, try using a password manager like LastPass or 1Password. These and other password managers let you securely store passwords without needing to recall all of your login credentials.

3. Don't Carry Your Social Security Card

The nine digits that make up your Social Security number can open the door to identity theft if they fall into the wrong hands. To avoid theft, keep your Social Security card in a safe place at home rather than stashing it in your wallet. If your card is stolen, an identity thief might do some serious damage, such as using your Social Security number to apply for credit in your name.

4. Protect Your Personal Documents

Paper documents are a goldmine that could allow a fraudster to steal valuable personal or financial information. Don't make it easier for them to access your paper documents. Here are several ways to safeguard your documents:

  • Shred documents that contain personal data, financial data or both. This includes bank statements, credit card statements and bills.
  • Don't let mail pile up in your mailbox. Mailboxes are frequent targets of identity thieves. If you're going out of town, put a hold on mail deliveries during the time you'll be away or ask a trusted neighbor to fetch your mail.
  • Sign up for electronic statements from financial institutions. This means you won't be receiving sensitive paper documents from credit card companies, banks and other companies that are enticing to fraudsters.

5. Watch Out for Phishing Attempts

In a phishing attempt, a cyber thief is hunting for personal or financial information that could help them steal your identity. Phishing attempts typically come in the form of emails or text messages. The goal: Make you click on a link or open an attachment that looks legitimate.

For instance, an unexpected text might cause you to think a trusted company such as a credit card issuer is directing you to click on a link to handle an account issue. Once you click, however, you'll be asked to enter some personal information, such as a password or account number on an account a scammer controls.

Once you submit your information, a scammer may be able to access your credit card account or bank account. Or the scammer might sell your information to another scammer.

If you suspect there's something fishy about an email or text message containing a link or attachment, don't click or download anything. Clicking could lead you to a phony website that asks you to type information like a password, and downloading might infect your device with software (called malware) that's designed to steal personal information. If you think the message may be legitimate, call or email the company separately using the contact information on your account statement.

6. Never Give Out Personal Information Over the Phone

Fraudsters are sneaky and creative. For example, they might call you and pretend to be an employee of a bank or credit card company. During the conversation, they may ask for personal data, such as your Social Security number, credit card PIN or mother's maiden name.

No reputable organization will contact you by phone and request personal data. So, before you provide information that could lead to identity theft, ask for the name of the caller and the organization they represent. Next, end the call and find the phone number for the organization listed on their official website to verify whether the over-the-phone request was legitimate.

7. Regularly Check Your Credit Reports

Checking your credit reports on a regular basis enables you to see any suspicious activity, such as new accounts that you didn't open. When you make it a habit to check your credit reports, you're better equipped to head off damage that can be done by an identity thief.

You can get a free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com. In addition, you can get a copy of your credit report and review your credit scores for free through Experian.

8. Limit Your Exposure

Resist the temptation to carry a lot of credit cards when you're out and about. The more credit cards you keep in your wallet, the more opportunities a thief has to steal from you.

Ideally, you should carry just one card that can be used for a variety of purposes and leave the rest of your cards at home. If that won't work, limit the number of credit cards in your wallet to only those that you'll really use.

9. Be Careful With Public Wi-Fi

These days, public Wi-Fi networks at places like coffee shops and airports are generally secure thanks to encryption measures that most websites adopt. However, you should verify the encryption before you trust a public Wi-Fi network.

To see whether a website is encrypted, check for a lock symbol or https:// in the address bar to the left of the web address. Also, be sure to double-check that you're connecting to a legitimate public Wi-Fi network.

Other steps you can take to shield your information from cyber crooks when you're connected to a public Wi-Fi network include:

  • Avoid sharing sensitive information
  • Use a virtual private network (VPN)
  • Make sure your computer's operating system is up to date
  • Log out of all online accounts after you've finished your business
  • Install and update antivirus software

10. Limit What You Share on Social Media

It's tempting to share details about your life on social media. But doing so can feed a fraudster's need for personal information. Some of the information you should keep to yourself includes:

  • Answers to common security questions, such as your mother's maiden name or the make and model of your first car
  • Your address
  • Images of sensitive documents like your driver's license or passport
  • Credit card numbers and other account numbers
  • Usernames and passwords

11. Use a Privacy Screen

Especially when you're using a computer in public, you may want to look into getting a privacy screen. You attach this type of filter or panel to a laptop or computer monitor to help shield your information from nosy people near you. A privacy screen works by making it tougher for someone to view an electronic screen.

You can also get a privacy screen for your mobile phone to deter "screen creepers" or "shoulder surfers."

How to Recognize Signs of Identity Theft

Signs that you may be a victim of identity theft include:

  • You receive bills for merchandise you didn't purchase
  • You receive calls from debt collectors about accounts that you didn't authorize
  • You see information on your credit report for accounts that you didn't authorize
  • You get denied for credit applications
  • You notice that mail is missing from your mailbox or stops being delivered

What to Do if You're a Victim of Identity Theft

If you discover you're a victim or potential victim of identity theft, make these moves:

  • You have the right to place a free fraud alert on your credit report. When you set up an alert through Experian, for instance, the two other major credit bureaus (Equifax and TransUnion) will automatically be notified.
  • File a report with your local law enforcement agency.
  • Monitor your credit reports to detect suspicious activity.
  • Contact the companies, such as banks and credit card issuers, that are responsible for any accounts you suspect are in jeopardy. You might need to cancel accounts involved in your case of identity theft.
  • Dispute transactions that you believe were made fraudulently.

The Bottom Line

Identity theft can trigger a variety of financial problems. But you can protect yourself from being a victim of identity theft by embracing the right approach, such as guarding your personal and financial information and regularly reviewing your credit reports. To add a layer of protection, consider signing up for identity theft protection from Experian.

Learn More About Protecting Yourself From Identity Theft