Protect your Social Security number, credit card and debit card numbers, PINs (personal identification numbers), passwords and other personal information. A thief can use these details to order checks or credit cards, apply for loans or otherwise commit fraud using your name.
Among the preventive measures you can take: Don't provide financial and other personal information in response to an unsolicited phone call, fax, letter or e-mailit could be from a fraud artist masquerading as a legitimate business person or government official. Be particularly cautious with your Social Security number (SSN). While your employer and financial institutions will need your SSN for tax purposes, you have the right to refuse requests for your SSN from merchants and service providers (who have other ways to identify you). Also, if your state puts SSNs on driver's licenses, find out if you can use another number.
Keep bank and credit card statements, tax returns, checks and other sensitive documents in a safe place at home. Shred these documents before discarding them.
Also choose PINs and passwords for your credit union and Internet accounts that will be tough for someone else to figure out. Don't use your birth date or home address, for example. (More suggestions for guarding personal information appear elsewhere in this article.)
- Deal only with legitimate, reputable businesses. Try to do business with companies you already know or that have been recommended. Do your research before giving money or personal information to an unfamiliar merchant (or charity or any other organization). For example, contact your state's Attorney General's office or the Better Business Bureau and ask about complaints, lawsuits or other matters involving a company's reputation. To check out an unfamiliar banking institution, contact the FDIC (see "For General Information from Financial Regulators").
- Get key details in writing and read them thoroughly before agreeing to anything. Don't rely on a sales person's oral representations for a significant purchase or investment. Get as much written information as possible, including a contract, specifying cost information and your consumer rights. If a marketer refuses to supply written information or employs high-pressure sales tactics to get you to act fast, take that as your cue to say "goodbye."
- Beware of "deals" requiring money up-front. "Congratulations, you've won a free vacation!" "Get rich quickat no risk!" "We'll fix your credit problemsfast." Do these sound familiar? They're likely to be schemes to trick you into sending money or providing bank account information in exchange for promises of goods or services that will never be delivered. Be skeptical of any offer that's "free" or otherwise hard to believe and that, as a precondition, requires you to pay money (perhaps for a supposed "fee" or "tax").
- Be extra careful when providing personal information over the telephone or Internet. Scam artists hide at the other end of the phone line or computer screen. So, don't give bank account information, Social Security numbers or personal data in response to an unsolicited phone call or e-mail (see our article on "phishing"). Remember that a legitimate company would never ask for passwords or other personal information by e-mail. Before providing credit card or other information to a Web site, confirm that the site is legitimate, not a copycat designed by a crook, by verifying that the Web site's address is an exact match for what appears in literature from the company or some other reliable source. You'd be wise to avoid an online merchant that doesn't list a phone number or physical address, as these are possible signs that the Web site and its owners are fraudulent.
- Safeguard mail going to or from your home. It could include checks, credit card applications, bank statements and other items of value to a thief. Try to send and receive mail using locked mailboxes or otherwise secure locations. Remove incoming mail from your mailbox as soon as possible. If your mailbox is unlocked and you're going to be away on vacation or some other travel, have your mail held at the post office or picked up by a neighbor. If you're expecting a check, a credit card, or bank account information and it doesn't arrive in a reasonable period, notify the sender. As for outgoing mail containing a check or other personal financial information, put it in a blue Postal Service mailbox, hand it to a mail carrier, or take it to the post office.
- Stop bandits from recycling your trash into cash. Thieves known as "dumpster divers" pick through garbage looking for credit card applications, monthly bank statements, receipts, "loan checks" (mailed by financial institutions with offers to "write yourself a loan") and other documents they can use to commit fraud. Before tossing out these items, destroy them, preferably using a "crosscut" shredder that turns paper into confetti. Before selling, donating or disposing of an old personal computer, use special software to completely erase files that contain financial records, tax returns, and other personal information. Thieves can sometimes access personal information from computer disks, even if you've deleted or revised the files on the disk. The easiest solution is to physically break any disk before throwing it away.
- Limit the confidential information in your wallet in case it gets lost or stolen. Don't carry around more checks, credit cards or other bank items than you need. Consider reducing the number of credit cards you carry by canceling ones you don't use. Keep passports, Social Security cards, and birth certificates in a secure place, not in your wallet. Never keep passwords or PINs on or near your checkbook, credit card, ATM card, or debit card.
Review your credit card bills and bank statements as soon as they arrive, or go online even more often to review your recent account activity. If you notice something suspicious, perhaps a credit card purchase you didn't make or an unauthorized withdrawal from your checking account, contact the financial institution immediately.
Also make sure you get your statement every month. If no statement arrives, that could be a sign that an identity thief has stolen it from your mailbox, or changed your mailing address for purposes of committing fraud in your name but from another location. Subscribe to Provident's e-Statements in order to avoid vulnerabilities of physical access to your statement.
Monitor your credit report for warning signs of fraud. Most experts say you should check your credit report at least once a year from each of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax (800-685-1111), Experian (888-397-3742), and TransUnion (800-888-4213). When you get your report, look for anything suspicious, such as credit cards, loans, or leases that have been wrongfully taken out in your name.
You can obtain a free copy of your credit report once a year from each of the three major credit bureaus. You also have the right to learn your credit scores, which are designed to help predict how likely you are to repay a loan or make payments on time. Plus, merchants must notify you if they plan to report negative information about you to a credit bureau.
A copy of your credit report is also free in some states and some situations (such as if you believe you're a fraud victim or if you were recently denied credit or a job based on a credit report), but the most you'll pay under current rules is $9.
Another option is to pay a service to help you monitor your credit report for possible signs of fraud. But beware of telephone or Internet scams promoting credit monitoring services, "free" credit reports, or credit card or ID theft insurance. These frauds typically use false or misleading statements to get you to send money or divulge personal information, including credit card or bank account numbers (see #1 and #5, above).