Did you know that 8.6 million American households suffered some type of identity theft and fraud in 2010? The latest statistics from the Bureau of Justice paint an alarming picture for families fending off these crimes. The criminals who use your Social Security Number, infiltrate your accounts and steal your personal information are pretty sophisticated.
But as usual, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure, which means the best protection is taking proactive steps to help stop fraudulent activity and identity theft from happening altogether. While there are services that can alert you to changes in your credit file or finances, or a first sign of fraud or identity theft, you can start with four simple ways to make it harder for thieves to steal your personal information.
Your mailbox may seem pretty innocent, but it's a hotbed of information for identity thieves. Think about it, your account numbers, bank information and even private government-based information gets dropped there regularly. If you mail your bills out, you might be putting checks with routing numbers in your mailbox for pickup, as well. Know when the mail comes to your house and retrieve it promptly, so it's not left sitting there. If you pay bills by mail, drop them into an official U.S. Postal Service mailbox instead of putting them in your box for pickup.
You might think it's important to keep your credit cards with you at all times, but if your wallet is packed with personal information, one thief could learn a lot by nabbing it. Limit what you carry in your wallet to one or two credit cards and your identification. Leave your social security card in a safe place at home and memorize the number instead. Keep infrequently-used cards out of your wallet. It's also helpful to keep the customer service numbers for your card accounts separate from your wallet so you can call and cancel accounts immediately after a theft for the fastest identity protection.
Online shopping is very convenient, but precautions should be taken. Never order from a website you don't know and trust. If it's a new website, check for the Better Business Bureau (BBB) seal or Trust-e symbol before you order. If you can't find either, run a quick Internet search on the website name and look for reviews from past customers to make sure they were satisfied with their experiences. When checking out, never save your credit card information to your account. If the site is ever compromised, thieves could grab your information and your account number.
Remembering a ton of different passwords is a pain, but don't make the mistake of using the same one across the board for online or bank accounts. Too-simple passwords are practically an invitation for identity thieves to break in, so skip the "password" or "1234" codes. Instead, use a combination of letters and numbers known only to you and change each slightly for different uses. Keep a hard copy of each password in a secure location for your own reference and you'll keep your accounts (and your identity) safe.