If you equip yourself with knowledge, there are plenty of things you can do to protect yourself against identity theft—one of the fastest-growing crimes in the U.S. The Federal Trade Commission reports consumers lost more than $3.3 billion to fraud in 2020—a more than 80% increase from 2019.1
Identity theft occurs when someone obtains your personal or financial information, like your name, address, bank account number, Social Security number (SSN), or credit card details, then uses it for their own personal gain.
You can learn how to prevent identity theft with these simple ways to protect your information, online and offline. Here are nine tips that make it harder for fraudsters to access your private info.
1. Create strong passwords
Create complex passwords that are tough to guess. Use unique passwords for each account, keep them secret, and change them regularly. If your account offers multifactor authentication, opt in for an extra layer of security. You may also consider using a trusted password manager app to help generate and store passwords.
2. Properly dispose of paper statements and offers
Shred credit card offers, bank statements, and ATM receipts before throwing them away. Avoid leaving a paper trail that someone could use to learn information about you.
3. Check your financial statements and credit score regularly
Look over your credit report and transactions on your credit card and bank account statements. Make sure you recognize all charges, transactions, and credit requests. Call your bank if something looks out of the ordinary.
4. Protect your devices
Use antivirus and anti-phishing software, firewalls, and ad blockers to protect against cyberthreats. Configure devices to automatically update or notify you when an update is available. Avoid accessing sensitive accounts or performing financial transactions on public Wi-Fi—and consider using a virtual private network (VPN) or your mobile service provider’s network to protect your activity from being intercepted.
5. Avoid shady unsecured websites
Before you enter your personal information online, be sure the company is reputable and uses encrypted technology. Look for “https” (not just “http”) at the beginning of the site URL and double-check the address to make sure it isn’t a copycat site. If a website doesn’t look legit, avoid it. Also, avoid downloading files, clicking links, and typing usernames and passwords if anything looks suspicious.
6. Sign up for alerts
Most financial institutions can send an email or text when a transaction happens on your account. Sign up to receive alerts about specific types or amounts of deposits, withdrawals, or charges, or any hints of suspicious activity.
7. Keep private info private
Be wary of anyone asking for personal information like your SSN, birthdate, and bank account or credit card number—especially if they called you when you weren’t expecting a call. Familiarizing yourself with your bank’s privacy and security policies can help you understand what type of information they may or may not reach out to you for, so you can tell when something’s off. When in doubt, contact the company directly using a published customer service hotline like the number on your statement or card prior to providing any information to a call.
8. Only carry what you need
Avoid carrying your Social Security card and health insurance card on you unless you need them. If you’re going out, carry just the credit card you intend to use instead of bringing all your cards out all the time.
9. Check your mail
To prevent mail from being stolen, check it often. Going out of town? Place a hold on your mail or set up a secure spot for couriers to leave any packages you’re expecting. You can also sign up for a free service, USPS Informed Delivery, to digitally preview and manage your mail delivery.
Identity theft warning signs to watch out for
The earlier you catch identity theft, the easier it can be to recover. If something about your finances isn’t sitting right, go through this list of warning signs, and take quick action if you think something’s up.
- Your financial statements look incorrect: If you see withdrawals from your bank account that you don’t recognize or suspicious activity on your credit card, contact your bank ASAP.
- You’re denied new credit: If you know you have a good credit history, but lenders are denying you new types of credit, check the credit report they pulled to see if something looks off. Lenders are required by law to explain why a credit application was denied.
- Your bills are missing or unfamiliar: Sometimes, mail from your bank or the government could contain sensitive personal information that fraudsters could use to steal your identity. Not receiving your bills in your mail could indicate that someone has rerouted your mail or is getting to your mailbox before you. Signing up for online statements on all your accounts can help mitigate this risk.
- Debt collectors are calling out of the blue: If someone calls about unpaid bills you don’t recognize—either on your actual accounts, or on accounts that may have been fraudulently opened in your name—check your credit report and call your bank.
What to do if you suspect identity theft
If you notice any of these signs, take a deep breath and follow these steps immediately. Quick action is crucial to mitigating the impact. Be sure to reach out for professional help if you need it.
- Notify banks, creditors, and anyone else involved: Alert your creditors and bankers that you believe fraud has occurred. Report stolen cards or suspicious activity ASAP and contact everyone connected with the fraud incident. (For example, if it’s tax-related, contact the IRS, or if someone used your information with a medical care provider, contact your health insurance company.)
- Place a fraud alert on your credit report: Protect your credit from further damage by contacting a credit reporting agency and requesting a fraud alert. This makes it harder for identity thieves to open accounts in your name.
- Freeze your credit: A credit freeze locks down all your credit information. You can usually do this online with the press of a button.
- File a report with the FTC: When you report identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), they create a report that includes prefilled forms and letters you can use to prove the theft to other institutions.
- Reset your passwords: Make sure your security bolts are tightened by changing passwords. Remember: Use complex and strong passwords that would be difficult to guess.
- Remove false information from your credit report: Contact the credit reporting agency if you find a false transaction on your file. Credit reporting agencies can block these transactions from affecting your report.
- Report and replace any missing cards or IDs: If you lose an insurance card or credit card or suspect someone has your information, report it and request a replacement card.
- Enroll in credit monitoring: Monitor your credit reports, and check for any new accounts you don’t recognize. The company responsible for exposing your information may offer free credit monitoring for which you can enroll.
Identity theft can happen to anyone, but knowing how to better protect yourself from identity theft with these tips can help you stay safe. Avoid becoming an easy target by keeping an eye on your personal data and knowing when to take action.