When Ken Stalcup handed his debit card to a waitress, she did more than just charge him for his meal. She stole his account information and began taking money from his account. “My bank shut down my card very quickly, so the losses were pretty small,” says Stalcup, a certified fraud examiner and certified in financial forensics. “But it was still a nightmare dealing with police – forms and emailing back and forth to get everything resolved.”
Identity theft was the top complaint made to the Federal Trade Commission in 2012. Of the more than 2 million complaints made to the agency last year, 18 percent (369,132 complaints) were for identity theft.
To keep from becoming a statistic, here are five ways to prevent identity theft:
1. Guard Your Social Security Number
Don’t keep your Social Security card in your wallet and never give out your Social Security number over the phone. Be particularly wary when someone calls you. The credit scoring company FICO recommends consumers limit the number of people and businesses they give their number to. When businesses, such as doctor’s offices, health insurance and schools ask for the number, offer a driver’s license number instead. “Shady employees at any of these places could steal your identity, so be very choosy about to whom you entrust it in the future,” FICO says.
2. Protect Mobile Devices
There are now more mobile devices on the earth than people, according to a recent report by GSMA Intelligence. With all of these devices accessing data, identity thieves will have more ways to commit the crime. Many people now access banking information and credit card statements from their mobile devices, such as smartphones, tablet computers and laptops. Use extreme caution when accessing financial information from a public Wi-Fi spot, which is a common way for thieves to obtain your information.
If you use your mobile devices to access any personal information, make sure that all devices are protected with a secure password. Scott Mitic, CEO of TrustedID, an identity protection and privacy service recommends removing all data from your devices when you recycle or sell. ”Simply deleting files is not enough. Use disk wipe services for laptops, and install wiping software on your smartphone to remove any stored data,” says Mitic.
3. Have a Shredder and Don’t Be Afraid to Use It
Make sure that you do not put any documents, statements or receipts with your personal or financial information on it in the trash. Instead use a shredder to destroy all of your financial information, including pre-approved credit card applications. With the rise in tax-related identity theft, you should also shred any pay stubs and keep all previous tax returns in a safe place.
Financial Attorney Leslie Tayne recommends getting your mail as early as possible and asking a neighbor to get your mail when you are out of town since identity thieves often target mailboxes. “If you are missing a statement or bill, contact the creditor right away,” says Tayne.
4. Protect Your Child’s Financial Information
A rising version of identity theft is to steal the identity of a child since the theft may not be noticed for years. While you may think that a child’s information can’t be of much value, according to the FTC, a child’s information can be used to “apply for government benefits, open bank and credit card accounts, apply for a loan or utility service, or rent a place to live.”
The Federal Trade Commission recommends taking the same precautions with your child’s information, especially their Social Security number. Warning signs that your child’s identity has been stolen include being turned down for government benefits, being contacted by the Internal Revenue Service because your child didn’t pay taxes or receiving collection notices for items never purchased.
5. Check Your Financial Information Regularly
If your identity is stolen, the best way to limit damage is to catch the theft as soon as possible. “Check your credit at least once a year to make sure there is nothing on there that you are unaware of,” says Tayne. Consumers are entitled to a free copy of their credit history once a year from each of the major credit bureaus through the official site annualcreditreport.com. Some experts recommend getting one report every four months to minimize the amount of time that passes before you spot the fraud. Tayne also recommends reviewing your credit card statements often for charges that you did not make or any other suspicious activity.