Image via Flickr user Steve Wilson
Identity theft occurs when someone obtains your personal information, such as your credit card data or Social Security number, to commit fraud or other crimes. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that 9 million Americans suffer identity theft annually. It sounds like a big number, but it isn’t.
Do You Need Identity Theft Protection? Before examining the services available, try these common-sense, no-cost measures to protect against identity theft and fraud:
Guard your information online. These days, many of us do most of our shopping and banking on the web. With all those account numbers and passwords floating around, it’s easy for someone to nab your information and go on a spree.
• Clear your logins and passwords. This is especially important if you’ve been working on a public computer. Change logins and passwords monthly.
• Pay for online purchases with your credit card, which has better guarantees under federal law than your online payment services or your debit card.
• Be alert for phishing, a trick in which spam or pop-ups mimic legitimate banks or businesses to obtain your personal information, which they use to access your accounts. Always verify that you’re on a familiar Web site with security controls before entering personal data.
Monitor your bank and credit card statements. Check your accounts regularly so you know when something’s awry. Purchases you didn’t make should be obvious—like a gas fill-up halfway across the country.
Verify your mailing address with the post office and financial institutions.Identity bandits may fill out change of address forms so that delinquent credit notices remain off your paper billing radar.
Monitor your credit report. By law, you’re entitled to a free report every year from each of the three bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion).
Shred sensitive documents. Buy a shredder and regularly shred outdated bank statements, credit card applications, bills, and anything with your personal information before tossing it into the trash or recycling.
Picking the Right Service Before you spring for identity theft protection, which, at a minimum, is likely to set you back at least $150 a year, consider the no-cost measures you can take to protect yourself.
Fraud alerts. Some identity-theft protectors will immediately place fraud alerts on your files with the three main credit bureaus, whether you’ve been victimized or not.
Credit freezes. Freezes are far more effective than alerts. Icing your files prevents any company from accessing your credit unless you already do business with them, effectively sealing your records against any new creditor.
If you’ve detected fraudulent activity, notify the financial institution where the fraudulent activity occurred first so they can freeze your account. Depending on the situation, you’ll need to file a complaint with the FTC and your local police department, as well as investigate all of your other accounts. And keep a vigilant eye on that credit report.
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