Saturday, April 18, 2009

5 Tips to Help Prevent Identity Theft

credit: Flickr user Don Hankins
One day last month I received a letter that congratulated me on opening a new account. The problem was, I hadn't opened that account. Someone had gotten hold of my name, address, and Social Security number, and used my information to open the account.

I was lucky that the letter came to me. If the identity thief had used his (or her) own address, I would not have known about the theft until more damage was done. As it turned out, all that I lost was a week of my time, which I spent on the phone with various people who helped me get this resolved.

We all know, I think, about being careful not to give out our personal information--especially our Social Security numbers--without good reason. I'd been careful about this, so I don't know how the thief got my SSN.

I have five tips to help you avoid the same kind of headache I just had. While no method of prevention is foolproof, these can only help!

1. If you live in the United States, you are entitled to receive a free credit report--from each of the three credit reporting agencies--each year. I knew about this but hadn't checked my credit report for a couple of years. There are companies that advertise "free" credit reports, but require you to sign up for a monitoring program. This link will get you to the only reports (as far as I know) that are truly free: https://www.annualcreditreport.com/cra/index.jsp

2. Through the credit reporting agencies, you can place an initial fraud alert or security freeze on your account. Read the details carefully, because the duration, conditions, and fees vary. Details are available from each of the three credit reporting agencies: TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax.

3. Here's a simple trick that my husband thought of. Nearly every store now has PIN pads where customers scan their own credit cards. I always try to hold my hand over the card number, to prevent anyone from reading the number over my shoulder. My husband, always brilliant, suggested that we cover the last eight digits of the card number with masking tape. The number is effectively hidden from those nearby, but can be read close-up if necessary.

4. If your bank or credit-card company sends "convenience checks" in the mail, you can request that they stop sending them. We never use them, but it would be easy for someone to steal them from the mailbox and use them fraudulently. If nothing else, we have fewer papers to shred each month. (Tip 4(a), then, is to shred any mail, any papers, anything with your personal information!)

5. One of our first responses, upon reading the letter about the fraudulent account, was to sign up for LifeLock. My sister had recommended it in the past, but we hadn't signed up; I guess we thought that we didn't need it because we were careful with our personal information. I wish we had signed up for it sooner! LifeLock provides some of the services that you can do yourself, such as requesting your free credit reports, signing up for an initial fraud alert on your credit file, and blocking those annoying pre-approved credit card offers. They also renew the fraud alerts every 90 days (I'd never remember to do that!), scour known criminal websites for your personal information, and monitor address databases (in case someone changes your address in order to steal your identity). I can't do those last two items, so I'm glad that LifeLock does it for us.

An edited version of this article is also published at Associated Content.

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