While hackers have gotten savvier over the years, it is possible to take steps that reduce the chances of someone stealing your identity.
Like the old saying goes, prevention is better than a cure. Preventing identity theft is way easier than rebuilding your credit after someone steals it.
In this post, we’ll go over 10 things you can do to protect your identity and prevent identity theft. Some of these may seem tedious, but by doing them, you can protect yourself.
1. Caution Using Public Computers
If you use public computers, such as the ones you may find at a library, you should always make sure to sign out of any personal accounts.
If you sign into any email accounts, bank accounts, or any type of account that has even the tiniest bit of personal information, make sure you sign out.
You can take this a step further by clearing the cookies in the Internet browser you used.
2. Avoid Signing into Sensitive Accounts in Public Places
You never know who may be looking over your shoulder in a public place where you’re working on your computer or smart device. If you absolutely need to sign on to sensitive accounts in a public place, you can use a privacy screen protector or avoid signing into the account altogether.
3. Use Two-Factor Authentication
Using two-factor authentication allows the service you’re signing into — whether that is your email, social media account, bank, or credit records — to double-check that the right person is signing in.
This double authentication is helpful when the sign-in is coming from a different location or a different device that has never been used to sign into that particular account.
I highly recommend you set up two-factor authentication on every sensitive account you have!
This way, even if someone has your password, double authentication could prevent them from gaining access to your account.
Bonus: If you want to take your two-factor authentication to the next level, look at getting a physical key, such as the YubiKey. This will make your sign-on even more secure, since you have to have this key for logging into unknown devices. Yes, it can make things a bit more tedious, but it does make things significantly more secure.
4. Using Public Wi-Fi
Hackers and identity thieves can also steal your information if you’re logged onto a public Wi-Fi system.
Thus, if you tend to sign onto some of those sensitive accounts I mentioned earlier, it’s important to not sign into them at all on a public network. Or, you could sign up for a virtual private network (VPN) service that will block hackers from getting your information when you are on a public Wi-Fi network.
5. Avoid Giving Out Pertinent Information to People Who Call and Ask for It
If you live in the U.S. and have been getting calls from people who say they are calling you from the IRS or from your student loan servicer, you’re not alone!
According to MarketWatch, spam calls rose from 3.7% in 2017 to a whopping 29.2% in 2018. That number is expected to be even higher for 2019.
Here’s what these spam calls typically look like:
- You get a call from someone who claims they work with the IRS. Sometimes they sound American. Sometimes they don’t. Whatever the case may be, please realize that the IRS will never call you about an issue on your phone. If there is a real problem with your tax records, you will get a letter from the IRS.
- They might then go on to mention your name and ask if they could verify your Social Security number and address. Never give this information out.
- They then go on to issue a threat and will mention that the police or the FBI will be arresting you in the next 24 hours if you don’t do what they ask. This is also another red flag as the IRS never does this.
And these scammers are not just using the IRS angle!
People have reported receiving scam calls from people that claimed they were from their bank, an investment company, or even their student loan servicer.
The rule of thumb here is to never give out your personal information to anybody who is asking for it over the phone, with or without threats. Hang up the phone immediately, or better yet, don’t answer the phone if you don’t recognize the call. You can personally call the agencies the person is claiming to be calling from to verify, but 99.9% of the time, it’s going to be a scam.
6. Don’t Give Your Information Over Email Either
Email phishing scams are just as real and bad as the phone call scams. Avoid giving out personal information here, too.
Pro Tip: Make a "fake" email account that you can use if you really need to give out an email but don't trust the recipient.
7. Check Your Credit Report at Least Once a Year
Make sure to check your credit report at least once a year. If you find any suspicious activity, you can call the credit bureaus to report it and then freeze your credit report so nobody can apply for loans or services with it.
8. Don’t Carry Your Social Security Card Around in Your Wallet
This simple rule could save you a world of pain.
Store your Social Security card in a safe place at home instead of carrying it around in your wallet. This way, if you lose your wallet, you won’t lose this crucial piece of information.
9. Handle Your Mail with Care
Collect the regular mail delivered to your home every day. This is especially important if your mail is delivered in a spot many people have access to. Also, if you need to get rid of mail, even if it is “useless” mail, make sure to shred it to get rid of any identifying information.
10. Install Firewalls and Virus Protection Software on Your Computer
If you haven’t done this, now is the time to get to it!
We don't pretend to be experts in anti virus software and firewall protection - but do some homework for what's best for your machine and make sure it's installed and updated!
Bonus: Change Account Verification Questions Frequently
One of the ways people can access your account is by guessing your password and using that. In fact, a study by the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre showed that people regularly use “Password” and “123456” as passwords for very important accounts.
And so usually, you’re told to choose a strong password — one that is difficult to guess — so that people can’t steal your information.
We’ll take it a step further here.
You know how you have to select verification questions in case you are ever locked out of your account and have to change your password?
Well it turns out some scammers will actually attempt to change your password if they cannot guess it. Once they do this, they may be redirected to those verification questions. If they hit those verification questions and are able to answer them, they’re in.
Therefore, my suggestion is for you to make your verification questions and answers something hard for people to guess or for you to change them frequently — every three months or so. For example, if they ask for your high school, give something fake - like a phrase you know! Nobody is guessing that.
Going through an identity theft situation will make anyone feel violated and hopeless. Thankfully, following some of these super simple tips will help you avoid it.
Let us know in the comments below which one of these you are currently using (and which ones you’re not!).
Robert Farrington is America’s Millennial Money Expert® and America’s Student Loan Debt Expert™, and the founder of The College Investor, a personal finance site dedicated to helping millennials escape student loan debt to start investing and building wealth for the future. You can learn more about him here and here.
He regularly writes about investing, student loan debt, and general personal finance topics geared towards anyone wanting to earn more, get out of debt, and start building wealth for the future.
He has been quoted in major publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox, ABC, NBC, and more. He is also a regular contributor to Forbes.