Everybody’s personal data is at risk. We provide personal account information like passwords and account numbers to access online accounts all the time. When we do, there’s always some level of risk that a criminal could steal and misuse it.
The best way to help prevent identity theft is to sign up for an identity theft protection service. Although an identity theft protection service can't prevent identity theft, it can alert you promptly when it happens to limit the damage and help you recover.
Identity theft protection can help safeguard your personal information for a monthly or annual fee. Subscriptions can include monitoring of credit reports, financial accounts, medical information, social media activity, the dark web, and more. Identity theft protection companies also provide recovery services if your information is compromised.
Besides subscribing to an identity theft protection service, there are other ways to help prevent identity theft. These include:
1. Freeze your credit.
When you freeze your credit file, no one can look at or request your credit report. Therefore, no one (including you) can open an account, apply for a loan, or get a new credit card while your credit is frozen. To freeze your credit, you must contact each of the three credit reporting agencies: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. The credit bureaus provide online, telephone, or mail-in options for freezing your account. Upon doing so, they will provide you with a PIN or passcode you can later use if you temporarily lift or stop the credit freeze. Credit freezes are free and won't impact your credit score.
2. Pick up your mail every day.
Criminals often target your mailbox in search bank or credit card statements, utility bills, health care or tax forms, or pre-approved credit card offers. Thieves also can reroute your mail by submitting change-of-address requests in your name, so keep track of expected mail that doesn't arrive. In addition, always put your mail on hold when you're away.
3. Review credit card and bank statements regularly.
It's important to regularly review your credit card and bank statements, because someone with your credit card number or bank account information could make small charges to see if they can get away with it. Credit card fraud is the most common type of identity theft.
4. Shred documents containing personal information before disposing of them.
Dumpster diving might sound like an old-fashioned way of stealing personal information, given the influx of phishing scams and online data breaches, but criminals still do it. While some people might be looking for valuables or furniture, others are looking to steal your data.
5. Create different passwords for your accounts
A secure password is long, complex, and unique. Avoid using information related to your identity, such as the last four digits of your Social Security number, your birthday, your initials, or parts of your name. The FBI recommends creating passwords with at least 15 characters because these are more difficult for a computer program or hacker to crack.
6. Review credit reports annually
Requesting your credit reports from Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian is free, and you should do so annually. Accessing your credit reports won't lower your credit score, and you can easily request them online. Also, the bureaus provide tools to help you monitor your credit, such as alerts to notify you of key changes. Ideally, pull your report from the bureaus at different times throughout the year so you are continually monitoring activity. You can also request free annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com.
7. Install antivirus software
Antivirus software can prevent hackers from accessing information on your computer and mobile devices. Because criminals can more easily hack outdated software, keep your antivirus software current or set it to update itself automatically.
8. Enable two-factor authentication on devices and accounts
According to a 2017 Data Breach Investigations Report from Verizon, 81% of hacking-related breaches start with a stolen or compromised password. Two-factor authentication (2FA) is an extra layer of password security. It’s based on your knowledge of something like a PIN or password, a possession like a smartphone or other device, and a biometric characteristic like your fingerprint or voiceprint. 2FA requires more than one of these identifiers to unlock an account.
9. Wipe your hard drives, computers, tablets and phones before donating
When you delete files from computers and other electronic devices like tablets, those files aren't really gone; pieces of them remain and can be reassembled with a data recovery program until they're overwritten with new data. This can be accomplished with overwriting software that wipes hardware or transfers data from your old computer to a new one.
10. Opt out of prescreened credit card offers
Credit card companies often send pre-screened offers to open new accounts, and criminals can intercept these mailed or emailed offers and open accounts in your name. Shred these offers rather than throwing them in the trash. The safest way to avoid identity theft from pre-screened credit card offers is to opt out of receiving them through optoutprescreen.com, which is the official consumer credit reporting industry website.