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How to protect yourself from identity theft

It's critical to be proactive when it comes to safeguarding your identity from thieves, and that begins with the careful management of your personal information.
Identity theft impacts thousands of Americans each year. Ask anyone who has been through the process and they'll tell you it's a serious headache — hours on the phone chasing down fraudulent charges and fake accounts. No one wants to suffer through that. One of your best defenses against identity theft is knowing that it's a problem and making sure you're not an easy target. 

What is identity theft?

Identity theft happens when someone takes your personal data and pretends they are you. Most often, the goal of the thief is to see some sort of financial gain. 

Any number of different pieces of information about you — from your birthday to your Social Security number to your bank account — are used to open new accounts or get loans. 

You've probably heard about computer hackers retrieving your information from a data breach on the news — that certainly happens. However, some of the most common ways your identity gets stolen are often accidents — you drop your wallet or you’re the victim of a scam phone call. 

What you can do to protect your identity? 

There's no guarantee you'll never be the victim of identity theft. However, there are things you can do to make it harder for someone to get your personal information. 

Here are some simple things you can do: 

  • Keep watch — Keeping an eye on your bank account, credit card statements and credit report is an easy way to stay on top of things. Schedule a time on your calendar each month to give your statements a quick overview. Many credit card companies also offer credit monitoring, making it easy to notice big changes. Additionally, if you receive a data breach notification from a business, place a fraud alert on your credit report so that your lenders take extra precautions to monitor your credit. And be sure to take advantage of any free credit monitoring that may be offered to you as a consumer by the business. 
  • Update your passwords — Encountering a very simple password or pin code makes a thief's day. Don't let it be so easy for them. Beef up your passwords and change them frequently. If you're worried about forgetting passwords, you can use one of the many password management tools available. Just be sure to research their history for security breaches.  
  • Shred your documents — Your mail is an easy source for finding personal information, so don't toss anything — especially old credit cards — without shredding them first. You can buy a shredder or check with your town — many offer free shredding and recycling days. 
  • Be wary — When it comes to giving out personal information, it's always better to be safe than sorry. If you aren't sure if someone calling is a scammer, for instance, err on the safe side. You can always look up the number and call back. When going out in public, leave important documents like your Social Security card at home and avoid using public wi-fi connections such as in airports and coffee shops. 
  • Be prepared — Keep any personal and important documents in your home in a safe along with a list of accounts that will help you quickly identify the creditors you need to alert in the event your purse or wallet is stolen. Also consider a P.O. box if you frequently have financial documents sent to you via the U.S. Postal Service. 

Identity theft warning signs

Many cases of identity theft get resolved if caught early. But how do you know if someone is using your personal information? 

Here some early warning signs: 

  • There are unexplainable withdrawals from your bank account. 
  • Important mail, such as bills or replacement checks, don't arrive. 
  • You start receiving medical bills for services you didn't use. 
  • You receive calls or letters from debt collectors about debts that are not yours. 

New accounts or charges begin to show up on your credit report. You get a notice from the IRS saying that you have earned income from an employer you didn't work for.  Too many identity theft victims don't even know that they're even victims until weeks or months after the fact. In many cases, people only find out when declined for a loan or notified by a collection agency. 

How to report identity theft

If you do discover your identity has been stolen, you want to act quickly so you can stop any further damage and get things resolved as soon as possible. 

Here are some steps you can take: 

  • If you notice the odd transactions on your bank account or card, call the companies and alert them immediately. They can often freeze your card and flag the suspicious transactions. 
  • Contact the three main credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — and place a fraud alert on your credit. This means that anyone who tries to open a new card or take out a loan will get flagged.
  • Contact the Federal Trade Commission and open up a claim. You'll be able to log your complaint and then get a recovery plan.

Determine if you want to contact local authorities. Depending on the type of theft, you might want to file a police report. From there, it can often be a waiting game, so you'll want to follow up on a consistent basis as you move through the process.

Protecting your identity is vital. Learning how to protect yourself now can save you a lot of headaches and hassles later. For more information on how to protect yourself, visit the Federal Trade Commission's website.

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