You Can Protect Yourself From Identity Theft by Keeping Your Private Information Private
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You Can Protect Yourself From Identity Theft by Keeping Your Private Information Private

Keep your personal information safe by figuring out where it may leak out and plugging the holes

August 23, 2019

The Internet is so prevalent in our day-to-day lives that we often give little thought to our privacy as we browse our social media feeds or reorder dog food. But it's more important than ever in our connected world to safeguard our information from identity thieves. Thankfully, there are a few steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of having your identity stolen, whether online or offline.

Destroy any documents you don't need

If your personal information is lying around, it only takes seconds for someone to grab it. And that doesn't have to mean picking it up and taking it. You'll be hard-pressed to find someone in this day and age who doesn't have a cell phone with a camera. It can take seconds for someone to whip out that phone and take a picture of your personal information.

Securely destroy any documents with personal information when you no longer need them. These documents include mail with credit offers, those with your signature, tax returns, and anything with your Social Security number, date of birth or other identifying information. Purchasing an inexpensive cross-cut paper shredder is an easy way to do this. Be careful if you decide to burn these documents. Many papers, especially if piled heavily, won't burn completely.

Safeguard your mailbox

Mail that is left sitting in your mailbox or at your front door is an invitation for identity thieves. If you are going out of town for a period of time, have someone pick up your mail regularly or place a temporary stop on your mail. You can also get a locking mailbox or rent a box at the Post Office. Make sure to protect your outgoing mail by placing it in a secure mailbox or handing it directly to the mail carrier.

The United States Postal Service has a service called Informed Delivery that allows you to get an email every day with a scanned image of the mail that is expected to arrive that day. For now, it doesn't work well with handwritten addresses or parcels, but it's a great way to track what's expected to arrive. And it's free! If you regularly receive packages from the big name shipping companies, you can sign up for notifications of pending deliveries and even schedule re-deliveries through their websites, as well.

Be very cautious when it comes to online forms

If you've spent any time online, you know that websites are always trying to connect with you. Whether it be to send you a newsletter or to get you to sign up for a service, you need to be careful when putting your information into online forms. You really don't know where that information is going, let alone if anyone in the middle of the transmission will intercept it.

You should always be asking yourself who is behind the request for information whenever you're looking at an online form. Is it a random request or did you go to the website with the intention of completing the form? Is it a reputable company or one you've never heard of? Is it really necessary to provide it? It's often legitimate to share information, such as your name, email address, home address, phone number, and date of birth. But is all of this information really necessary to sign up for a newsletter?

Don't share too much on social media

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.

Make sure you are dealing only with secure websites

Twenty years ago, most websites started with only http. Today, however, most websites are moving toward https. The "s" stands for secure, meaning that the website has a certificate from a certificate authority. When you look up a regular website with http, your web browser is assuming that it is connecting to the correct web server. Data is then transmitted between your browser and the web server in something called "clear text," which means that anyone eavesdropping on the connection can view your data being transmitted.

Https is used to create a secure connection between your browser and the web server. When you connect to an https site, the company that issued the security certificate is vouching that the server you are connecting to is the correct and legitimate server. Otherwise, the connection should fail. If any secure connection fails, you should leave the site until the site operators correct the error.

Any company dealing with private or financial information should be using this type of connection. Most websites are now defaulting to this secure protocol, which means that even if you type http into the address bar, you will redirect to https. That's good! This system isn't perfect, but it's better than the old way. When you send information over this type of connection, no one (including your Internet service provider) should be able to eavesdrop on what you're doing.

Audit your online information periodically

You probably aren't doing web searches on yourself. But it is a good idea to do so periodically, especially on "people search" types of websites. A lot of the information you will find in these sites is public record, but you still don't want potential identity thieves to have access to it. Most of these types of websites have ways to opt out of your information displaying. You should attempt to have your information removed if possible. But remember that the operators of such websites are under no obligation to remove publicly available information.

Don't pay with checks

You probably don't think twice about dropping a check in the mail or entering your checking information into a website, but checks really aren't secure. While any unauthorized checking transactions can be handled with your bank, you still don't want to go through the hassle of trying to clean up the mess if someone gets your information. Unlike a credit card, thieves only need your account number and routing number to do some real damage to your account. And once they have your account number and routing number, they can forge checks using that information and scam other unsuspecting victims. When possible, pay a different way.

Be suspicious of every person who handles your information

When you are giving information to your doctor's office, for example, you typically don't hesitate. But are those documents being stored securely or being disposed of properly? Limit your exposure by providing the least amount of information possible.

Be careful with that link

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. So 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 log onto any kind of banking or other sensitive site over a public WiFi connection.

Carry only what you need

Don't carry anything other than what you need 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 unless you absolutely need it.

Opt out of junk mail

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.

Beware of Phishing

If you receive an odd or alarming email supposedly from your bank asking you to log in to your account, either call the bank directly or go to its website. Don't rely on the phone number or website provided in the email as they may be fake and may be a direct line to identity thieves Always beware of anyone calling who claims to be from your bank, a government agency, etc. Companies and government agencies won't call to ask for sensitive information or account numbers.