67 Tips and Resources for Protecting and Recovering Your Identity
Each year, more than 17.6 million Americans experience identity theft. That's about 7 percent of U.S. residents age 16 or older. Often, victims experience abuse of existing accounts, while about 4 percent have their information stolen to open a new account, and some experience multiple types of identity theft.
Whatever kind of identity theft you fall victim to, if can be an infuriating experience. You may be contacted by debt collectors threatening lawsuits over accounts you never opened, have to deal with hours or days of wading through credit reports, creditors, accounts, and fraud affidavits. You may even experience credit denials or increased rates during particularly sensitive financial periods, such as applying for a mortgage or buying a car.
There's no question that identity theft hurts. Here's what you can do to prevent identity theft, take action if you become a victim, and use every resource at your disposal to make things right -- or make sure you never become a victim.
Tips for Preventing Identity Theft
The best way to deal with identity theft is to make sure it never happens to you. There are a number of ways you can take steps every single day to protect your personal information and shield your credit from thieves.
- Only use secure websites for financial transactions: Look for https:// in the URL as well as security seals to ensure that your data is being safely transmitted.
- Lock up sensitive information: Lock financial documents and other records in a safe place at home. You should also keep your wallet or purse in a locked drawer at work.
- Reduce the number of cards you carry in your wallet: Every card you carry is a risk for theft. Consider reducing the number of cards you carry on you. You may even want to avoid carrying your debit card, as the risk of losses to your checking account is more damaging than credit card fraud.
- Keep an eye on your card: Whenever possible, don't let your card out of your sight, as it can be skimmed by employees with hand held skimmers that swipe your account information.
- Use security software on your computer: Use anti virus software, anti spyware software, and a firewall to protect against intrusions that can compromise your computer and the information you store on it.
- Watch for missed bills: If you haven't received a bill for an account, contact the issuer, as this count indicate the account has been stolen.
- Only use credit cards when online shopping: Credit cards offer better protection for online shopping than debit cards do.
- Maintain a list of account information: Keep a list of all of your credit and debit cards, bank accounts, and investments in a secure place so that you can get in contact with the bank or other issuer quickly if there's a problem.
- Be careful about sharing sensitive information over the phone: Unless you have initiated the call with a company you trust, don't give out your social security number, credit, or debit card number.
- Carefully watch your mail for new cards: If you know a new or reissued credit card is on its way, be sure to watch your mail and contact the issuer if it does not arrive.
- Check your credit and accounts if merchants refuse your checks: If your checks have been refused, it may be a sign that your identity has been flagged and you're experiencing identity theft.
- Use a secure browser and encryption: Guard your online transactions with encryption software and look for lock icons before sending personal or financial information online.
- Never share passwords: Don't write down or share passwords with anyone.
- Be careful not to overshare online: Don't share sensitive personal information like your mother's maiden name, social security number, street you grew up on, address, or account number.
- File your tax return immediately: Identity thieves can use your Social Security number to file a tax return in your name and receive a refund. As soon as you receive all of your tax documentation, file your return so that you don't leave this window open for identity theft.
- Use Wi-Fi wisely: Your Wi-Fi connection could open you up to identity theft. Make sure your information will be protected by using an encrypted website. Or better yet, only use private, secure wireless networks.
- Keep your laptop locked: If your laptop is stolen, it can be a treasure trove of information for thieves. Disable automatic login information that could give a thief access to your files or allow them to log in to account using your browser.
- Investigate problems with health insurance acceptance: If you're billed for medical services you didn't use, or your health plan rejects your claim because you've erroneously reached your benefits limit, someone else may be using your insurance.
- Monitor your credit report: Get a free credit report every year from each of the three credit bureaus to identify potential identity theft, including inquiries and accounts you don't remember opening.
- Freeze your credit if there's a problem: If you've had a data breach, stolen documents, or other identity theft problem, consider freezing your credit report so that credit issuers must contact you before accessing and opening up new accounts. This can keep thieves from opening up new accounts and are typically available at no charge.
- Consider a credit monitoring service: If you're not able to stay on top of your credit with free credit reports, consider getting help from a credit monitoring service.
- Use smart passwords and PINs: When setting passwords and pins, avoid using information that could be easily figured out by thieves, such as your birthday, digits of your Social Security number, your middle name, or pet's name. Passwords should have upper and lower case letters, special characters, and numbers.
- Destroy prescription bottle labels before throwing them out: If you've finished your prescription, be sure to wash off the label before throwing it out, as you may unintentionally share your health plan information.
- Destroy data on your computer before disposing of it: Use a wipe utility to get rid of personal information before you dispose of a computer or mobile device.
- strong>Watch for online impersonators carefully: Don't give out personal information or click on email links online. Go directly to the website and contact them, asking whether they really sent a request.
- Put outgoing mail in a secure mailbox: Instead of placing outgoing mail in your unlocked mailbox, drop it off at a collection box or at the post office.
- Don't release your social security number: Keep your social security number private unless it is necessary. Never say your social security number out loud in public or have it printed on or written on your checks.
- Use a locking mailbox: Deter mail thieves by installing a locked mailbox.
- Review all accounts each month: Look for unauthorized use on every account as you're paying bills so that you can quickly identify fraud.
- Pay bills online: Convert as many accounts as you can to online account statements and bills. This will reduce the risk of identity theft in the mail.
- Carefully shred pre approved credit card offers: Don't give dumpster divers anything to go on. If you get a pre approved credit card offer or other sensitive information, be sure to shred it before you recycle it.
- Don't have new checks mailed to you: Pick up new checks directly from the bank rather than having them sit in your mailbox for any amount of time.
Tips for Recovering from Identity Theft
If you've become a victim of identity theft, you have a lot of work ahead of you. Recovering from identity theft can be frustrating and difficult, but if you keep at it, you should be able to remove all or most of the damage to your credit and financial situation.
- Keep careful records: If your identity has been stolen, you'll have a lot of documentation to keep track of. Carefully store your credit reports, affadavits, police report, account records, and more so you'll have easy access to it when you need it. Keep a record of every phone call, letter, or communication you make so that you'll have a paper trail.
- Create a timeline of deadlines: Keep a list of important dates, including when you have to file requests, when companies must respond to you, and when you have to send follow ups, such as after the initial 90 day fraud alert.
- Contact credit bureaus immediately: Contact one of the three national credit bureaus right away to have a fraud alert placed on your account. This will make it more difficult to open more accounts in your name, stopping the damage. You can also request a security freeze.
- Get a copy of your credit reports and monitor them: Get the details on credit reports so that you can identify every fraudulent account and inquiry. Request additional reports so that you can monitor for more accounts that may be opened after your initial discovery.
- Dispute errors with credit reporting agencies: File disputes for fraudulent accounts so that they may be removed from your file.
- Create an identity theft report: Develop an identity theft report to organize all of the details of the theft, which will be used to remove fraudulent information from your credit report, stop debt collection, and get information from companies about fraudulent accounts.
- File a police report: Identity theft is a crime. Contact the police to file a report and establish an extended fraud alert on your credit. You will likely need to share your investigator's information with creditors who require verification of your case.
- Contact new creditors: Directly contact the creditors of fraudulent accounts and fill out fraud affidavits. Request copies of account documentation including the application and transaction records.
- Contact existing creditors: Inform creditors that your accounts have been used fraudulently. Ask them for replacement cards and new account numbers. You will likely need to document a fraud affidavit.
- Contact debt collectors: If you've been contacted by debt collectors for fraudulent accounts, tell them that you are a victim of identity theft and not responsible for the account. You may need to fill out a fraud affidavit. Never pay a bill that is a result of fraud and report attempts to coerce you into paying to government regulators.
- Change passwords and PINs: Update your passwords and PINs for every account you have access to, whether they've been breached or not. This will add a layer of protection for preventing fraudulent access.
- Ask for confirmation: After contacting creditors and debt collectors, remember to follow up with the business as well as credit reporting agencies to confirm that the accounts have been removed or updated so that they don't reflect fraudulent information.
Credit Card Bureaus
Whether you're a victim of identity theft or simply working to protect your credit, credit reporting agencies are great resources to use.
Identity Theft Prevention Resources
Want help preventing identity theft? Use these resources to stop thieves in their tracks.
- How to Keep Your Personal Information Secure: Use the Federal Trade Commission's guide to keeping your personal information secure. They recommend knowing who you share information with, storing and disposing of personal information securely, asking questions before sharing personal information, and maintaining security on your computer and other electronic devices.
- Privacy Rights Clearinghouse: Find fact sheets, videos, quizzes, alerts, and more on identity theft and data breaches.
- OnGuardOnline: OnGuardOnline explains how you and your family can be safe online. You'll find resources for avoiding scams, securing your computer, protecting kids online, and practicing identity theft safety.
- Coping with Identity Theft: Reducing the Risk of Fraud: Privacy Rights Clearinghouse's guide explains the steps you can take to reduce your risk of identity theft, including fraud reduction tips and responsible information handling.
- Financial Readiness: As Critical as Fully Charged Batteries: Are you ready for an emergency? The Federal Trade Commission explains how you can prepare for situations like weather emergencies.
- OptOutPrescreen: Opt out from receiving offers for pre approved cards, loans, and other products by signing up on OptOutPrescreen.com. This will reduce the risk of identity theft in the mail, as dumpster divers or mail thieves may use pre approved offers to open accounts in your name.
- National Do Not Call Registry: Register with DoNotCall.gov, and telemarketers should not call your number. This will help you to better identify scammers over the phone.
- DMAchoice: Like the OptOutPrescreen, DMAchoice makes it easy for you to manage your mail preferences for offers and other advertisements that could be an identity theft problem.
- Warning Signs of Identity Theft: Are you a victim of identity theft and don't know it yet? The FTC shares clues that someone has stolen your identity.
- Why You Should Get Security Freezes Before Your Information is Stolen: Read this guide to learn why it may be a good idea to freeze your credit even if you don't have a problem with identity theft.
- Identity Theft Protection Services: Get information from the Federal Trade Commission about identity theft monitoring services before you enroll.
Identity Theft Recovery Resources
If you're a victim of identity theft, you can can use these resources to recover your good name.
- IdentityTheft.gov: Report identity theft and get a recovery plan from IdentityTheft.gov.
- Identity Theft Resource Center: Get no cost assistance with your identity theft case from the Identity Theft Resource Center.
- Identity Theft Resource Center State Resources: Learn about the available resources, rules, and regulations for identity theft in your state here.
- Taking Charge: What to do if Your Identity is Stolen: Follow the Federal Trade Commission's guide to learn about the steps you should take if your identity is stolen.
- Identity Theft: What to Do if it Happens to You: If you're a victim of identity theft, you may feel helpless and frustrated. With this guide from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, you can find out exactly what you need to do.
- How to Deal with a Security Breach: The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse lays out the steps you should take if you discover you've been involved in a data or security breach.
- Credit Freeze FAQs: The FTC explains how you can place a freeze on your credit report and what it does.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation Internet Crime Complaint Center: If you've been a victim of Internet crime, such as phishing, credit card fraud, or identity theft, report it to the FBI.
- Federal Trade Commission Complaint Assistant: Report identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission to help them fight crime and prevent others from becoming identity theft victims.
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