How to Prevent Identity Theft

Taking all the right steps to protect your personal information and data.

There’s no foolproof way to prevent identity theft. Even if you follow all the advice below, your personal information can still be compromised. After all, you can’t opt-out of credit reporting, and even a credit bureau has been hacked. Government agencies also have your personal information, and they’re vulnerable, too. Still, taking these steps will minimize your risk for ID theft.

Protect your identity offline

  • Don’t keep your Social Security card in your wallet. Make a copy of your Medicare card and cross out all but the last four digits, then keep that version in your wallet except when you need the original at the doctor’s office.
  • Don’t give up personal information just because someone asks — even at work, school, or the doctor’s office. First find out if they need it and what happens if you don’t give it, and what they do to protect your information.
  • Don’t give out personal information over the phone or Internet unless you initiated contact and need to verify your identity.
  • Before trading in or dumping your electronics, make sure you’ve deleted all personal information from them.
  • Shred receipts, credit card offers, insurance forms, checks, bank statements, and any other paperwork with personal or financial details that you no longer need.
  • Be in the habit of collecting your mail promptly, and have your mail held if you plan to be out of town.
  • Keep your financial records in a safe place at home, preferably one that’s locked.

Protect your identity online

  • Avoid clicking on links and attachments in email from businesses and people you don’t know.
  • Avoid accessing sensitive information while on public Wi-Fi networks or mobile hotspots.
  • Don’t use the same password on multiple websites.
  • Regularly change passwords. Consider using password manager software like LastPass so you don’t have to keep track of them all.
  • Put password protection on your laptop and smartphone, and don’t leave them unattended in public. Always log out of your accounts when using someone else’s computer.

Tools for protecting your identity

There are a number of tools that you can use to protect your identity. Some help you prevent theft, while others help you catch potential theft as early as possible so you can cut it off without delay.

  • Credit monitoring tools alert you anytime there’s a change in your credit report or credit score. This can help you catch accounts you didn’t authorize or collections you didn’t expect.
  • My Social Security is an online account you can get through so you can get notified if someone requests a replacement Social Security card or applies for benefits in your name.
  • Sign up for any account fraud protection offered by your bank, credit union or credit card companies. This will protect your checking account and credit cards from misuse of the account, which is the most common form of ID theft.
  • Monthly statements may be an old-school form of fraud protection, but it doesn’t make them any less effective. Review your statements every month for charges or transaction that you don’t recognize – even small ones!
  • Dark web scans are offered by the credit bureaus and come with some credit monitoring tools. These tools scan the dark web to see if your personal data appears anywhere. If it does, they’ll tell you exactly what they found and what you can do to keep your data safe.

Credit freezes don’t just protect, they prevent ID theft

Most identity theft tools just give you good ways of catching identity theft early, but credit freezes stop it from happening in the first place. A credit freeze locks down your credit report completely. You won’t receive pre-approved credit offers and creditors and lenders won’t be able to check your credit unless you unfreeze your credit using a unique PIN you receive when you lock it. This prevents anyone from opening loans and credit cards in your name.

As of October 2018, credit freezes with all three credit bureaus are entirely free. You can freeze and unfreeze your credit report at no charge. So, there’s no reason not to freeze your credit to prevent unauthorized use. Just be aware that it takes a few days to unfreeze your credit. You won’t be able to sign up for credit on impulse, such as getting a store credit card because a clerk upsells their reward program at checkout. But this can be a good thing, because you only want to get new credit with a clear plan that you’ve considered carefully.