Whether they’re snatching your purse, diving into your dumpster, stealing your mail, or
hacking into your computer, they’re out to get you. Who are they? Identity thieves.
Identity thieves can empty your bank account, max out your credit cards, open new
accounts in your name, and purchase furniture, cars, and even homes on the basis of
your credit history. If they give your personal information to the police during an arrest
and then don’t show up for a court date, you may be subsequently arrested and jailed.
And what will you get for their efforts? You’ll get the headache and expense of cleaning
up the mess they leave behind.
You may never be able to completely prevent your identity from being stolen, but here
are some steps you can take to help protect yourself from becoming a victim.
Check yourself out
It’s important to review your credit report periodically. Check to make sure that all the
information contained in it is correct, and be on the lookout for any fraudulent activity.
You may get your credit report for free once a year. To do so, contact the Annual Credit
Report Request Service online at www.annualcreditreport.com or call (877) 322-8228.
If you need to correct any information or dispute any entries, contact the three national
credit reporting agencies:
1. Equifax: www.equifax.com
2. Experian: www.experian.com
3. TransUnion: www.transunion.com
Secure your number
Your most important personal identifier is your Social Security number (SSN). Guard it
carefully. Never carry your Social Security card with you unless you’ll need it. The same
goes for other forms of identification (for example, health insurance cards) that display
your SSN. If your state uses your SSN as your driver’s license number, request an
Don’t have your SSN preprinted on your checks, and don’t let merchants write it on your
checks. Don’t give it out over the phone unless you initiate the call to an organization
you trust. Ask the three major credit reporting agencies to truncate it on your credit
reports. Try to avoid listing it on employment applications; offer instead to provide it
during a job interview.
Don’t leave home with it
Most of us carry our checkbooks and all of our credit cards, debit cards, and telephone
cards with us all the time. That’s a bad idea; if your wallet or purse is stolen, the thief will
have a treasure chest of new toys to play with.
Carry only the cards and/or checks you’ll need for any one trip. And keep a written
record of all your account numbers, credit card expiration dates, and the telephone
numbers of the customer service and fraud departments in a secure place–at home.
Keep your receipts
When you make a purchase with a credit or debit card, you’re given a receipt. Don’t
throw it away or leave it behind; it may contain your credit or debit card number. And
don’t leave it in the shopping bag inside your car while you continue shopping; if your
car is broken into and the item you bought is stolen, your identity may be as well.
Save your receipts until you can check them against your monthly credit card and bank
statements, and watch your statements for purchases you didn’t make.
When you toss it, shred it
Before you throw out any financial records such as credit or debit card receipts and
statements, cancelled checks, or even offers for credit you receive in the mail, shred the
documents, preferably with a cross-cut shredder. If you don’t, you may find the
panhandler going through your dumpster was looking for more than discarded leftovers.
Keep a low profile
The more your personal information is available to others, the more likely you are to be
victimized by identity theft. While you don’t need to become a hermit in a cave, there are
steps you can take to help minimize your exposure:
To stop telephone calls from national telemarketers, list your telephone number with
the Federal Trade Commission’s National Do Not Call Registry by calling (888) 382-
1222 or registering online at www.donotcall.gov.
To remove your name from most national mailing and e-mailing lists, as well as
most telemarketing lists, write the Direct Marketing Association at 1120 Avenue of
the Americas, New York, NY 10036-6700, or register online at www.dmachoice.org.
To remove your name from marketing lists prepared by the three national consumer
reporting agencies, call (888) 567-8688 or register online at
When given the opportunity to do so by your bank, investment firm, insurance
company, and credit card companies, opt out of allowing them to share your
financial information with other organizations.
You may even want to consider having your name and address removed from the
telephone book and reverse directories.
Take a byte out of crime
Whatever else you may want your computer to do, you don’t want it to inadvertently
reveal your personal information to others. Take steps to help assure that this won’t
Install a firewall to prevent hackers from obtaining information from your hard drive or
hijacking your computer to use it for committing other crimes. This is especially
important if you use a high-speed connection that leaves you continuously connected to
the Internet. Moreover, install virus protection software and update it on a regular basis.
Try to avoid storing personal and financial information on a laptop; if it’s stolen, the thief
may obtain more than your computer. If you must store such information on your laptop,
make things as difficult as possible for a thief by protecting these files with a strong
password–one that’s six to eight characters long, and that contains letters (upper and
lower case), numbers, and symbols.
“If a stranger calls, don’t answer.” Opening e-mails from people you don’t know,
especially if you download attached files or click on hyperlinks within the message, can
expose you to viruses, infect your computer with “spyware” that captures information by
recording your keystrokes, or lead you to “spoofs” (websites that replicate legitimate
business sites) designed to trick you into revealing personal information that can be
used to steal your identity.
If you wish to visit a business’s legitimate website, use your stored bookmark or type the
URL address directly into the browser. If you provide personal or financial information
about yourself over the Internet, do so only at secure websites; to determine if a site is
secure, look for a URL that begins with “https” (instead of “http”) or a lock icon on the
browser’s status bar.
And when it comes time to upgrade to a new computer, remove all your personal
information from the old one before you dispose of it. Using the “delete” function isn’t
sufficient to do the job; overwrite the hard drive by using a “wipe” utility program. The
minimal cost of investing in this software may save you from being wiped out later by an
As the grizzled duty sergeant used to say on a televised police drama, “Be careful out
there.” The identity you save may be your own.