Keep your personal information safe by figuring out where it may leak out and plugging the holes
Social media has become so prevalent in our day-to-day lives that we often give little thought to privacy. In reality, it is more important than ever to safeguard personal information from the dangerous threats of identity theft.
Fortunately, it's easy to keep yourself safe: simply take the steps below to reduce the likelihood of having your identity stolen.
- Destroy any paper documents you don't need
- Safeguard your mail
- Be cautious when it comes to online forms
- Don't share too much on social media
- Audit your online information periodically
- Be suspicious of every person who handles your information
- Keep your computer clean
- Carry only what you need
- Opt out of junk mail
- Beware of Phishers
Shred or burn any documents containing personal information when you no longer need them. Such documents include junk mail containing a credit offer; old documents containing your signature, Social Security number, date of birth, or any other identifying information; old tax returns; and convenience checks from credit cards.
It is recommended that you pick up your mail as soon as possible after it has been delivered and that you always put it on hold if you go out of town. You can also get a locking mailbox or rent a post office box. You should also protect any outgoing mail by either placing it in a secure mailbox or handing it to the carrier rather than leaving it out to be picked up.
Many websites ask you for such personal information as your name, email address, home address, phone number, and date of birth. It is often legitimate to share this information—for instance, when subscribing to a newspaper or shopping online.
Nevertheless, it is wise to ask yourself who is behind the request whenever you're asked for personal information. Is it a reputable company or one you've never heard of? Is it really necessary to provide it?
First, make sure you know who it is you're sharing with whenever you post something on social media. If the social network allows you to customize who can see your posts, make sure that posts about potentially compromising situations such as upcoming surgeries or vacations are seen only by a select group of close family and friends.
Second, not even relatives should have all of your personal information. Hundreds of thousands of people have their identity stolen every year by someone they know. Never post a photo of a personal document such as a new passport or even your child's report card, and make sure that there are no documents visible in the background of your images.
Unless you're particularly famous, you probably don't Google yourself on a regular basis. However, it is a good idea to do so once in a while, especially on "people-search" websites like FamilyTreeNow that let you search for personal information without paying or signing up for an account. Much of the information you'll find in these places will be public records, but you still don't want to make it easy for potential identity thieves to find a lot of it. Opt out of all such sites.
You probably feel comfortable sharing information with your doctor's office, but think about it for a moment. Do you know whether they're storing such documents securely or disposing of them properly when they become unnecessary?
You can limit your risk of exposure by providing as little information as possible. Is it absolutely necessary to wire your child's medical insurance ID on every school form? And your doctor's office doesn't need your Social Security number on every piece of paperwork, either.
You can also ask staff how they handle and secure documents and, if there are ways they can improve, push for more safety.
It is very convenient to be able to log onto your bank, credit, and mortgage accounts online to pay your bills, check your balances, and transfer money. However, doing so on a compromised device can be highly dangerous.
Be careful about the things you click, whether it's a downloaded app or a link or attachment in an email. Hackers can use computer viruses to record everything you type, including usernames and passwords. Never, ever log onto any kind of banking or other sensitive site over a public Wi-Fi connection.
You can safeguard your online account information even better by regularly changing your passwords and making them very difficult to guess.
Don't carry anything other than what you need around with you. You should be able to manage with one or two credit cards and your driver's license. Never carry your Social Security card with you.
Sign up to prevent credit and insurance companies from sending you preapproved offers. These offers can be used to take out fraudulent accounts in your name.
Phishers are imposters who request your bank password or other information. If you receive an odd or alarming email supposedly from your bank, either call the bank or go to its website by typing in the URL and log on.
However, more and more phishers are turning to phone calls to reel in victims. Beware of anyone pretending to be from a company like Microsoft or an agency like the IRS who call you and request money or personal information.