The best protection from identity theft is prevention. Here are some tips to safeguard your information:
1. Be mindful of shoulder-surfers. At ATMs and point of sale terminals, thieves will stand close enough to see PIN numbers punched in by users.
2. Mind those credit card receipts, some credit card receipts may still list full account numbers and expiration dates. Put the charge slip copies in a safe spot until your credit card bills arrive.
3. Buy a shredder and use it. Shred everything, including credit card receipts (after you've reconciled your bill), old bank statements, medical statements, everyday bills, and pre-approved credit card offers. Any document that has personal financial information on it can give an identity thief a foothold into your life.
4. Write clearly on all credit applications. Consistently and completely fill in all credit and loan applications using your full name, first, middle and last. Every bill that comes to your house should be addressed exactly the same.
5. Monitor your credit accounts carefully, so you'll know if a bill's missing or unauthorized purchases have been made. Close out unused credit cards. Cutting them up is not enough.
6. Limit the number of credit cards you carry. The fewer cards you have, the easier it is to track them.
7. Get a credit report at least once a year and clean up any errors. Look for personal information and credit accounts that are not yours. Credit bureaus can make mistakes. To order your report, call the following toll-free numbers:
- Equifax: 800-685-1111
- Experian: 888-397-3742
- Trans Union: 800-888-4213
8. Never leave paid bills in your mailbox for the mail carrier to pick up. Drop them off at a post office box.
9. If you're moving, contact all your creditors and update them of your address changes immediately. You don't want credit information and new credit cards being delivered to the wrong address. Likewise, if your credit card expires and you don't receive a new one, call your creditor immediately.
10. Protect your Social Security number. Only give your Social Security number when absolutely necessary. Avoid using it as your account number whenever possible. If merchants demand it, ask for an alternate number and take your business elsewhere if they insist on writing it on your check. Likewise, don't print it on your checks.
11. Never carry your Social Security number and driver license together in your wallet.
12. Don't provide your Social Security number, bank account number or credit card number to anyone who contacts you through telephone solicitation or via email.
13. If you're shopping with an online merchant for the first time, look for the Trust-e symbol or a Better Business Bureau online seal. These indicate the seller has been independently audited and deemed trustworthy.
14. Make sure any online credit card charges are handled through a secure site or in an encrypted mode. You'll know you're on a secure site if the Web page on which you conduct your transaction begins with https instead of the usual http.
If you are a victim of identity theft, take the following steps:
• Contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus and request a "fraud alert" be placed on your file and no new credit be granted without your approval.
• Close any accounts that have been fraudulently accessed or opened.
• File a local police report and get a copy of the report to your bank, credit card company or others that may need proof of the crime.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the federal clearinghouse for complaints by victims of identity theft. Although the FTC does not have the authority to bring criminal cases, it can assist victims by providing information to help resolve problems that can result from identity theft. Should you find yourself a victim of identity theft, you can file a complaint with the FTC by calling toll-free 1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338).