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How to Prevent Identity Theft

12 Minute Read

Identity theft—it’s everyone’s nightmare.

We all remember the 2017 Equifax data breach. A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that over 145 million people’s personal information was exposed in the breach.(1) And since we live in a digital world, it’s completely necessary to arm ourselves against identity theft.

What Is Identity Theft?

Identity theft happens when your personal information (like your Social Security number, home address, driver’s license or even your name and email address) is stolen and used by someone without your knowledge and permission. Identity thieves often use your personal information for financial gain by applying for credit cards in your name, committing fraud, or even selling your information to other criminals. And sure, the internet has made our lives easier, but that also means it’s easier for thieves and fraudsters to get to your personal information. That’s why we need to be diligent in protecting ourselves online.

Types of Identity Theft

The most common type of identity theft is credit card fraud. The following list shows where the risk lies and what to look out for when you’re in the digital world:

  1. Debit or credit card fraud
  2. Employment or tax-related fraud
  3. Phone or utilities fraud
  4. Bank fraud
  5. Loan or lease fraud
  6. Government documents or benefits fraud
  7. Wi-Fi hacking
  8. Social Security identity theft

How to Prevent Identity Theft

Sometimes it can feel like we’re fighting an invisible enemy with identity theft. If so many people have become victims, how do you stop identity theft from happening to you? We spoke with Jessie Kohut, identity theft specialist at Zander Insurance, to learn how you can protect yourself against identity theft.

1. Check your credit report at least three times per year.

Staying informed is your first line of defense against identity theft. Did you know you can get a credit report from each of the three credit bureaus every four months? Get a report from one company at the beginning of the year, from another in the middle, and from another at the end of the year. Then start all over again.

Or if that seems like a lot of work, you could use a website like Credit Karma to check for unauthorized credit activity whenever it’s most convenient for you. Credit Karma is free (no, really). But don’t forget, your credit score is really an “I love debt” score, so don’t worry about what your actual score is.

Just be wary of other websites that claim to be free. “Don’t use,” Jessie said. “It’s owned by TransUnion, but it’s not really free.”

Checking your credit report often will help you identify any odd activity that might pop up. Here are some identity theft red flags we recommend you look for on your credit report:

  • Inactive accounts that suddenly have activity on them
  • A line of credit you didn’t open
  • Your personal information is incorrect
  • A good standing account is in collections
  • A credit inquiry you didn’t apply for

If you see something strange on your report, take action immediately. You have the right to dispute any information on your credit report that doesn’t look correct. First, notify the credit bureau so they can begin to look into the issue. Then they’ll contact the company you’re disputing the charge or inquiry from. Depending on the severity of the claim, you might need to supply further documents for their investigation.

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2. Make sure your computer has updated anti-virus software.

If you don’t stay up-to-date with anti-virus software, you leave yourself open to being targeted. It’s just that simple. Protect your identity by routinely checking for updates. “This also includes anti-keylogging software so no one can hack into your computer,” Jessie said.

If you want added protection, make a habit of logging out of any account you access on your computer or mobile device. We’re talking anywhere you use a username and password to log in. Is it more convenient to stay logged in 24/7? Sure. But doing little things like this can give you greater peace of mind and help you stay protected from identity theft.

3. Make privacy a priority on social media.

Oh, social media. Some people just love to share every detail of their life without thinking twice about how public they’re being with their personal information. It’s recommended you set your privacy settings on the highest level to be safe. Also, don’t share personal information like your exact birthday (including the year), address, or mother’s maiden name.

4. Keep your phone secure.

Make sure you take advantage of the passcode or thumbprint scan to get into your phone. Keep Bluetooth turned off when you aren’t using it. And also register with iCloud so you can remotely wipe your phone if it gets stolen. We’ve got some more tips here on how to secure your phone.

5. Never use unsecured Wi-Fi.

As tempting as it might be to sit at Starbucks and sip your latte while going over online banking statements—don’t! Unsecured, public Wi-Fi is just that, unsecured. Those sitting around you are on the same open network and can get access to your information easily. If you need to log on to your banking website, wait until you get home.

And while we’re at it, your home Wi-Fi must be secured with a password. Otherwise anyone near your home can hop onto your network and gain access to your information. “Identity thieves are just waiting for opportunities like that,” Jessie said.

6. Change your passwords every 90 days.

This includes passwords to your bank accounts, email and social media. “Once a thief gets one of your passwords, they’ll try it on many other sites,” Jessie said. “Facebook gets hacked all the time, so you don’t want them getting more personal information about you.”

She suggests making your passwords difficult combinations of uppercase letters, lowercase letters, and special characters. Instead of trying to meet the minimum character count, make your passwords long. Use a phrase or a few random words strung together to really keep the hackers on their toes.

Try to use phrases that aren’t easy to guess. (Sorry, that means famous quotes and Bible verses aren’t good fallbacks). Get creative! Be sure to use a different password for each account. In other words, don’t use the same password for all your social media profiles, email addresses and banking accounts.

7. Check your online bank account every day.

“Banks have systems that watch your spending patterns and regular charges, and they’ll flag your account if something irregular is going on,” Jessie said. It’s still important for you to log on every day and make sure there aren’t any weird charges connected to your account. You’re the first line of defense in protecting your identity.

8. Don’t send bills from your personal mailbox.

“A lot of people are so concerned with digital fraud, they forget the easiest type of identity theft—just stealing mail out of your mailbox,” Jessie said. “Don’t put checks in your mailbox because, when they have a check, they have your bank account number and routing number. That’s just handing vital information to a thief.”

Jessie suggested using the post office or a postal service mailbox to send bills. Also, grab any mail out of your mailbox as soon as possible, as thieves thrive on swiping those credit card mailers.

“At the end of the day, thieves are lazy and look for the easiest way to get your information,” she said. “Sometimes, that’s just your mailbox.”

If you want further security, consider using a locked P.O. box at your local post office.

9. Don’t fall for phishing scams.

Don’t open emails that look strange or suspicious. These are often phishing scams using fraud to gain access to your personal information. Read email subject lines carefully before you open an email, click on the links, or download attachments. And always be on high alert if they ask for personal or financial information.

10. Don’t forget about your kids’ information.

It’s sad, but true—even your toddler can fall prey to identity theft! Kids are easy identity theft targets because thieves correctly assume it will be a long time before the theft is detected. Kids aren’t credit active until they at least turn 18, so most parents never even know about the fraud until then. Jessie suggested using TransUnion’s free Child Identity Theft Inquiry.

“Fill out your child’s information, and you’ll receive an email back. If your child has a credit file, that’s not a good sign,” Jessie said. “Your credit isn’t like your Social Security number. You’re not born with credit, and you’ll only have a credit report if you’re credit active.” If someone is using your kid’s Social Security number, do something immediately.

11. Pay attention to data hacks and breaches.

If you receive a notification about a data breach (like the Equifax hack or the Target data breach a few years ago), start paying extra attention. “It doesn’t mean you’re a victim,” Jessie said. “But that does increase your risk. That’s when you start taking proactive steps to protect yourself.”

12. Guard your Social Security card, bank account numbers, and medical history.

It should go without saying, but it’s so important to protect your Social Security number and all forms of identification.

“The worst type of fraud is when someone has your unique name, date of birth, and Social Security number,” Jessie said. “That’s when they can get a job, file taxes, and even receive medical care in your name. Do everything you can to protect your Social Security number.”

And never keep your Social Security card in your wallet. “We had a client who kept her Social and her kids’ Socials in her wallet,” Jessie said. “So when her purse got stolen, that was bad news.”

Keep sensitive information at home in a safe place and only remove it when you really need access to the physical copy (like doing paperwork at a new job). Then put it back for safekeeping when you’re done.

A lot of people forget about medical identity theft, which is another major way information is stolen from you. It’s important you’re just as committed to safeguarding your health information as you are your other forms of identification. Be sure to analyze your medical bills and check the Explanation of Benefits (EOB) statement from your insurance company. “That’s a great way to detect medical fraud,” Jessie said.

These types of fraud are just one small part of the widespread issue of identity theft. Did you know identity theft also includes things like tax refund fraud, unemployment fraud, and utility and cell phone fraud? It’s important to stay vigilant and keep an eye on any type of personal identification that could be stolen from you.

10 Signs You’re a Victim of Identity Theft

  • Unauthorized charges appear on your accounts
  • Purchases are made in cities or states you don’t visit
  • Your credit report shows accounts you didn’t open
  • You get a call from a collection agency about a debt you didn’t take on
  • Your banking and billing statements don’t arrive on time
  • Medical providers send you bills for procedures you didn’t have
  • You receive a bill from a credit card account you didn’t open
  • Health providers reject your claim because you’ve reached your benefits limit
  • A credit card (that you didn’t apply for) is in your mailbox
  • More than one tax return has been filed under your name

What to Do If Your Identity Is Stolen

Let’s say you’ve done everything right—or maybe you’ve done everything wrong and your identity gets stolen. What do you do?

1. Notify your banks and credit card companies and close all your accounts.

Report any suspicious charges and accounts to the appropriate credit issuers and credit bureaus immediately—both over the phone and in writing. Jessie even suggested opening your new account at a different bank and transferring the money over to be extra safe.

2. Place a fraud alert on your credit reports.

Make sure you notify all three credit bureaus that your information has been stolen. You’ll get a 90-day fraud alert, but it will extend to seven years once you’ve proven you’re a victim of identity theft.

3. Put a freeze on your credit report.

A credit freeze is a tool you can use to restrict access to your credit report. This makes it harder for identity thieves to access your information or open accounts with your name. You can do this at any time to prevent your information from being stolen, but it’s an especially important step if your identity or account information has already been compromised in some way.

Note that a credit freeze won’t affect your credit score or stop you from getting access to your free credit reports for the year. You can also lift the freeze at any time.

4. File a report with your local police department.

Provide as much information about the incident as possible. Give date ranges, dollar amounts, and physical copies of receipts or bank account activity logs. Be sure to keep a copy of the report for your personal records too.

5. Get identity theft protection.

“Identity thieves are always changing their game,” Jessie said. “It’s our job to help you stay ahead of them.” Zander’s identity theft protection program can help keep you from being a sitting duck waiting for identity theft to find you. Be proactive. You can protect yourself from identity theft!

Safeguard you and your family from the nightmare of identity theft. Zander Insurance’s identity theft protection program covers all kinds of fraud and can give you the peace of mind you deserve.

Identity theft protection is just one of the important pieces you need to protect yourself and your family from unexpected life events. Take our 5-minute Coverage Checkup today to see what you need (and don't need) and where to get the best coverage!

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