It's National Protect Your Identity Week, which reminded me of how important preventing identity theft from happening really is. My wallet was stolen a few years ago, and after going through all the necessary steps to get my financial life back together, I had forgotten all about the incident. That is, until a routine check on my credit report a couple years later, where I found two accounts that had gone to collections, plus a few addresses on file where I most definitely had never lived.
Although I regularly checked my credit, it seems my information had been circulating but had not been used until years later. The discovery was the start of months of dealing with my identity theft — filing a police report (which is a required step to get fraudulent items off your credit report), putting a freeze on all my credit files, filling out the necessary paperwork with the companies where I had defaulted accounts to get them off my file.
It took lots of time and lots of trips to the post office to get everything documented, and I was frustrated to find out that there's not a whole lot the Federal Trade Commission can do after you file a complaint; it falls on the victim to be vigilant and proactive with protecting her own identity.
Even though I know my story could be worse, ever since then, I take steps to make sure that no one else can access my identity as easily (including never letting my purse out of sight). Read my tips on preventing identity theft so you don't have to go through this ordeal after the break.
- Stop the barrage of prescreened credit card offers in your mail. Those offers make it easy for your information to get into the wrong hands, so register at OptOutPrescreen.com to stop receiving them.
- Invest in a shredder. Even if you opt out of the credit card offers, the program is not foolproof, so you may still get the occasional letter. Make sure you shred these and anything else with your sensitive information, like account numbers.
- Never donate or sell your phone or computer without first wiping out the data completely. You should purchase software to do this on a computer, but make sure you buy one that overwrites your files many times. Follow these tips for getting rid of info on a cell phone.
- Practice safe online use. Set your Facebook and other profile privacy levels so strangers can't access your information, and be hyper-aware of any scams by double-checking where a link is taking you or not clicking on anything that seems fishy. This site has good information on ways your identity can be accessed, from public WiFi to resumes on job boards.
- Know what information is on your cards. As we've said before, never carry your social security card. However, some other cards may have your SSN on it, like some student IDs. Although I didn't have my original card in my wallet, my number was on a government-issued ID card that I had, and the combination of my driver's license, address, and SSN were all the thieves needed to open accounts under my name. Carry a card with your SSN on it only when you know you'll need it, and be aware of where you leave it at all times.