I recently participated as a panelist in an Experian Twitter #CreditChat about identity theft, which is the stealing of someone’s personally identifiable information (PII) to defraud them in some way, and tips for prevention.

Identity theft is typically not a stand-alone crime but, rather, part of another crime such as credit card, bank account, healthcare, or income tax fraud. Commonly stolen pieces of PII include Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, and driver’s licenses.

Since much of Americans’ PII is in the hands of employers, government agencies, and merchants, it is virtually impossible to eliminate the risk of becoming an identity theft victim.

This risk can be reduced, however, by following prudent risk reduction practices. Below are 10 ideas that were shared.

Break Risky Habits

Avoid oversharing personal information on social media, leaving personal information within view and accessible for misuse by others, using unsafe internet connections (e.g., public Wi-Fi) and weak passwords, and neglecting to shred documents with sensitive data (e.g., Social Security and account numbers).

Guard Your Mail

Use a locked mailbox or promptly remove mail from the mailbox following delivery and deposit outgoing mail at the Post Office or in collection mailboxes — not in unsecured mail receptacles.

Just Say No

Never provide personal information over the phone to unsolicited callers.

The same mentality should be applied towards emailed requests with suspicious links.

Tell yourself “no, this is not a legitimate request” and simply hang up or delete.

Know the Warning Signs

Take immediate action if any of the following events occur: a request for payment for purchases you did not make, suspicious entries in a credit report, contact from the IRS, declined credit cards, denied medical services, and erroneous bank or credit card statements.

Pay Cash in High-Risk Situations

Do not let your credit card out of your sight and let anyone take it away from you to swipe it and possibly skim, photograph, or record the numbers. Similarly, consider paying cash for gas to avoid the risk of having a skimming device attached to the pumps.

Travel Light

Empty your wallet and do not carry extra credit cards and unnecessary ID cards.

Do not carry around a Social Security number or passwords in a wallet or purse — memorize them and/or leave them at home in a secure location.

Some people also use a password manager program to secure their data.

Review Your Credit Report

Contact each of the Big Three credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) annually for a copy of your credit report that might provide evidence of identity theft (e.g., accounts opened in your name and fraudulent purchases).

Keep Good Records

Save receipts and match them against monthly credit card bills. Ditto for bank deposit and withdrawal slips to check against monthly statements. Make a list of credit card billing dates. If a billing statement is late, follow up promptly with the creditor.

Be Internet Cautious

Never enter PII on a public Wi-Fi system (e.g., at an airport) and always check for the letters https in a website address and a closed lock icon to indicate that a website is secure. If you absolutely must get out a message with personal data immediately, activate the Wi-Fi hotspot on your cell phone.

Consider a Credit Freeze

This is an anti-fraud measure that restricts access to your credit report to thwart fraudulent accounts. Credit inquiries are denied so fraudsters typically cannot get new credit in your name. Remember, however, that you will need to “thaw” your credit for new credit, bank accounts, and utilities.

The Bottom Line on Identity Theft Prevention

A key takeaway is that effects of identity theft can last years, even decades, including a drop in a victim’s credit score and the emotional effects of feeling violated.

The important thing to remember  is that we can never let your guard down.  Risks for theft will always surround us. Vigilance is required at all times.

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