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Stress Less: 7 Ways to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft

Identity theft is a constant risk in today's digital age. Here are some tactics to help protect yourself.

According to a 2019 survey, nearly 70 percent of Americans fear identity theft. And they have good reason to be alarmed. In 2017, approximately 13 percent of all reports to the Federal Trade Commission related to identity theft. This suggests millions of Americans are targets for ID theft each year.

Identity theft happens when someone obtains your personal information with the intent to commit fraud and/or other crimes. This could take several forms, from Tax ID theft (which involves using your info to file false tax returns) to Medical ID Theft (which happens when someone steals your Medicare ID or health insurance membership number) and Social ID theft (when someone uses your likeness and/or other personal info to create fake social media accounts).

In practical terms, identity theft might look like purchasing items on your credit cards (and potentially wrecking your credit), withdrawing money from your bank account, stealing your tax refund, taking out loans in your name, obtaining medical care via your health insurance, and/or selling your personal information to other criminals.

Rather than feeling terrified, we should all do ourselves a favor and focus on taking action instead. Here are seven simple ways to protect yourself from identity theft and enjoy greater peace of mind.

Password-protect accounts and devices with strong passwords.

You may already know this, but are you practicing it? It’s easy to get complacent and start using the same password for multiple accounts or to use easy-to-remember passwords such as “ILoveFido.”

These habits can pose several issues: If someone cracks one of your passwords, then they’ll get quick access to multiple accounts. And given how much personal information is available on social media, it may be easy to guess simple passwords that refer to easy-to-discover aspects of your life.

To avoid these pitfalls, focus on making distinct passwords for each online account and electronic device. Make each of those passwords hard to guess by including combinations of letters, numbers, and symbols; avoiding the inclusion of easily identifiable personal information; and making the passwords relatively long (ideally more than eight characters).

Be wary about sharing personal info.

Aim to avoid sharing personal data such as your birth date, social security number, and so on—and never give out this information unless you’re 100 percent certain that you know and can trust the source. It’s also a good idea to limit the amount of personal information that you share on your social media profiles. This makes it harder for identity thieves to piece together a profile that would allow them to, say, apply for a credit card in your name.

Keep an eye on your mail.

No, this doesn’t mean you need to sit by a window with a pair of binoculars any time someone passes by your mailbox. But it does mean it’s important to keep an eye out for missing bills, new debit or credit cards, mail that’s related to your health insurance or medical issues, and so on.

These items can be very useful to would-be identity thieves, so if you’re expecting them in the mail and they don’t show up, it’s important to contact the sender. If you’re going out of town, place a hold on your mail or ask a friend or neighbor to pick it up for you every day.

Keep tabs on all your high-value accounts.

By regularly checking important accounts and reports (including your bank account, credit card accounts, credit reports, and so on), you’ll be able to catch any suspicious activity early on—which gives you a better chance of successfully conducting damage control. If you see anything concerning, immediately contact the relevant institution.

Freeze your credit.

Freezing your credit reports offers a couple of benefits:

·It means no one can open a new credit account in your name.

·It means lenders can’t pull your reports (which limits nefarious actors’ access to data that might otherwise make it easy to steal your identity).

To freeze your credit, you’ll need to contact each credit bureau (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). Unlocking your credit will require passwords, so make sure these are strong and safely secured.

Shred important documents before disposal.

Trash cans and recycling bins are rich with information that can be put to use by would-be identity thieves in the form of, for example, old credit card, bank, or health insurance statements. Ensure that your trash isn’t used against you by shredding sensitive documents (and even less sensitive ones, such as preapproved credit card offers) before recycling them.

Report suspected identity theft immediately.

If you suspect that you’ve been the victim of identity theft, then it’s essential to report this information to the appropriate authorities ASAP. You can report to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) online at IdentityTheft.gov or via phone. You may also want to report identity theft to the major credit reporting agencies, financial institutions, and/or your state’s Consumer Protection Office or Attorney General’s Office.

While these strategies may be a little time-consuming, it’s well worth it for the extra protection you’ll enjoy from the risk of identity theft. What’s more, you’ll be able to rest easy knowing that you’ve done everything in your power to protect yourself and your loved ones from this growing threat.

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