Now more than ever, it’s important to safeguard yourself against identity theft. Here are some steps you can take to protect your personal and financial information.
Check Yourself Out
It’s important to review your credit report at least once a year and make sure that all the information in it is correct. You are entitled to a free credit report every 12 months from each of the three reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Besides the annual report, you may be entitled to an additional free report under certain circumstances. Visit annualcreditreport.com for more information.
If you find an error in your credit report, contact the appropriate credit reporting agency to let it know that you are disputing information on your report. The agency usually must investigate the dispute within 30 days of receiving it. Once the investigation is complete, the agency must provide you with a written result of its investigation and remove/correct any errors. You can generally file your dispute with the agency either online or by mail. However, it may be more helpful to dispute the error in writing with supportive documents, preferably by certified mail. That way you’ll have a paper trail to rely on if the investigation does not resolve the disputed error. If you believe that the error is the result of identity theft, you can also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at identitytheft.gov.
In addition to checking out your credit report, you should regularly review your bank and debit/credit card accounts for suspicious charges or account activity. If you discover signs of unauthorized transactions, contact the appropriate financial institution as soon as possible — early notification not only can stop the identity thief but may limit your financial liability.
Consider a Fraud Alert and/or Security Freeze if Necessary
If you discover that your personal and/or financial information has been exposed to identity theft, you should consider placing a fraud alert and/or security freeze on your credit report.
A fraud alert requires creditors to take extra steps to verify your identity before extending any existing credit or issuing new credit in your name. To request a fraud alert, you simply contact one of the three major credit reporting agencies, and the information will be passed along to the other two.
A security freeze prevents new credit and accounts from being opened in your name. Once you obtain a security freeze, creditors won’t be allowed to access your credit report and therefore cannot offer new credit. This helps prevent identity thieves from applying for credit or opening fraudulent accounts in your name. Keep in mind that if you want to apply for credit with a new financial institution in the future, open a new bank account, and even apply for a job or rent an apartment, you will need to “unlock” or “thaw” the security freeze. In addition, you must contact each credit reporting agency separately to place a security freeze on your credit report.
Maintain Strong Passwords
Most of us have a large amount of personal and financial information that’s readily accessible through the Internet, in most cases protected by nothing more than a username and password.
A strong password should be at least eight characters long, using a combination of lower-case letters, upper-case letters, numbers, and symbols or a random phrase. Avoid dictionary words and personal information such as your name and address. Also create a separate and unique password for each account or website you use, and try to change passwords frequently.
If you have trouble keeping track of all your password information or you want an extra level of password protection, consider using password management software. Password manager programs generate strong, unique passwords that you control through a single master password.
Stay One Step Ahead
The best way to avoid becoming the victim of identity theft is to stay one step ahead of the identity thieves. Here are some extra precautions you can take to help protect your sensitive data:
- Consider using two-step authentication.
- Think twice before clicking.
- Search with purpose.
- Be careful when you shop.
- Beware of robocalls.
- Be on the lookout for tax-related identity theft.