Identity theft, sometimes called identity fraud, is extremely serious. Yet, reports say it happens to Americans every two seconds. So, what is identity theft and is there anything you can do to lower your risk? Here are some tips you can use to protect yourself.
Keep Your Social Security Number Safe
There are a few simple steps that you can take right now to significantly reduce your chances of falling victim to a case of identity theft. Because identity theft often involves a criminal trying to get your social security number or driver's license in order to impersonate you, protecting your social security card and number is a good place to start.
Store your social security card in a safe place in your home - your wallet doesn't count! There are just too many things that could go wrong by storing your social security card in your wallet. You could forget your wallet at a concert or someone could pickpocket you. It simply isn't worth taking the chance and you do not need quick access to your card very often.
You should be very cautious when giving out your social security number to anyone. However, when applying for financial aid, student loans, and credit cards, you will likely have to provide your social security number. Just make sure it is done through a secure website (look for the https: in the URL) and never send your social security number or documents containing it through email.
Think Twice About Trusting Solicitors
Carefully giving out your social security number when applying for credit or in medical situations is normal and expected. Now, listen up: Giving out your social security number, bank account number, checking account routing number, driver's license information, and/or address to solicitors by phone or email should be viewed with extreme caution and never done. Think twice before giving out any personal information to solicitors. Solicitors are sometimes sneaky and often pose as trusted financial institutions. If you didn't initiate the contact, don't provide any personal info.
Be Tech Savvy
Many people know to be suspicious about phone and email solicitors, but one thing that can catch college students and even their parents off their guard is leaving passwords on computers. Make sure that if you're on a public computer - in, say, a school library - that you're not choosing to have that computer remember your password or credit card information. And since most students almost always have their own device with them, avoid ever using a public computer to access your personal accounts.
At home it might be OK, but at a public computer or on public WiFi, protect yourself and even check to see that nobody's looking over your shoulder when you enter personal information. You might also want to consider equipping your campus laptop with a hefty dose of anti-virus protection to help protect against the three main types of malware associated with identity theft - ransomware, POS malware, and adware.
Check for Fishy or Fraudulent Purchases on Your Account
Even if you haven't misplaced your credit card or wallet, you should check your credit and debit account statements regularly (at least monthly). If you see what you think are fraudulent purchases on your credit card account - e.g., purchases from out of state, plane or train tickets, or any purchase you don't remember making - then report that activity to your credit card company immediately.
Collect Your Mail As Soon As Possible
Another tip for college students: retrieve your mail quickly and regularly. You don't want to let mail accumulate and tempt someone to gain access to a lot of personal information. This is especially true for off-campus college students who have unlocked mail boxes. Consider having account statements sent to you electronically and eliminate the risk entirely.
After collecting mail, shred documents with sensitive information instead of chucking them in the trash.
Make Photocopies of Important Stuff
This last tip could really help you if you somehow fall victim to identity theft: Make photocopies of your credit, debit, medical, and social security cards as well as your driver's license. This can make reporting any abuse or canceling a lost card so much easier. Consider that if you make photocopies you'll have your stolen credit card's number right there. It makes for a quicker lookup so that credit card companies can halt all activity on the card.
Think twice before photocopying sensitive information on public copiers, in the school computer lab, or FedEx. These copiers could be a hothouse for identity thieves since many store images on the copier's hard drive. It's best if you make copies on a home printer or computer and store sensitive documents in a safe place at home or even better, in a safe deposit box.
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