As our financial lives become increasingly digital, we have the freedom to manage money anywhere there’s an Internet connection. Digital money management allows you to get the job done in much less time and to track your cash flow and budget in clever new ways. But making the leap from paper to cyberspace can be dangerous if you don’t know how to protect yourself from identity theft and other cybercrimes.
Here are 8 ways to stay safe from identity theft that don’t cost a dime and can save you a huge amount of headaches and stress:
Identity Theft Protection Tip #1: Minimize What You Carry in Your Wallet
Everyone’s nightmare is having their wallet or purse stolen, but it happens. Be sure you never carry anything that you don’t absolutely, positively have to. That way, if you are robbed the thief won’t score every possible piece of your confidential information.
For starters, never carry your Social Security card or a copy with you. Leave it in a safe place at home or in a safe deposit box at the bank. You only need to present the physical card in a few instances, like when you accept a new job or open a bank account.
Identity Theft Protection Tip #2: Review Your Account Statements
You should review your bank and credit card statements on a weekly basis to make sure there are no fraudulent charges. Criminals can slip in small charges that they hope you’ll miss—don’t give them the satisfaction! Better yet, import your bank and credit account transactions into online or desktop financial software at least once a week so you can check amounts against your receipts and categorize them for budgeting purposes.
Identity Theft Protection Tip #3: Review Your Credit Reports
Don’t forget to review your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) at least once at year. It’s free to view or print your entire file at annualcreditreport.com. A good strategy is to space out your requests so you can pull a different report every four months. Review it carefully to make sure all the accounts are yours and that the information is 100% correct.
Identity Theft Protection Tip #4: Send and Receive Less Confidential Mail
Identity thieves love to steal confidential documents from your mail box and they don’t even have to live next door to do it. Having a locking mail box isn’t enough protection; criminals can change your mailing address remotely so your mail goes to their address across the country without you knowing! Stay a step ahead of thieves by going paperless and get as many bills, account statements, and confidential documents as you can sent to your email inbox instead of to your physical mail box.
You can opt out of certain types of junk mail like preapproved credit card and insurance offers by going to OptOutPreScreen.comto have your name removed from direct marketing lists.
Identity Theft Protection Tip #5: Shred Documents with Confidential Information
Since not every financial institution is on the paperless bandwagon yet, be sure to shred any document with confidential information that you don’t need. Another past time of identity thieves is dumpster-diving. Your pre-approved credit card offers, bills, and account statements can be used against you because they contain your name, address, account number, and sometimes even your Social Security number. That’s all a thief needs to open an account in your name and run up a line of credit, for instance. If you make confetti out of your documents, all a dumpster-diver will get is dirty.
Identity Theft Protection Tip #6: Don’t Browse Confidential Sites in Public
Never visit a confidential site, like your bank or investing account from an unsecure location like a coffee shop or library. Thieves hang out where there’s an open Internet connection so they can see where people are browsing and steal their log on information.
Identity Theft Protection Tip #7: Use Complex Account Passwords
Never use simple passwords that a thief could guess, like your birthday, address, or kid’s name. The best passwords are at least eight digits and have a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols. You should change passwords for your financial accounts every few months so a thief who gained access would get locked out.
Identity Theft Protection Tip #8: Be Suspicious When Approached
If you receive an email, letter, or phone call from someone who says they’re from a government agency, bank, credit card company, or any other financial institution, be suspicious. Identity thieves will pose as trusted representatives so they can con you into giving up your confidential information. Always ask for their name, phone number, or email so you can call them back or contact them directly to verify their purpose for contacting you.
Learn More About Identity Theft Prevention
In “6 Simple Tools to Protect Your Privacy” you can listen to an interview I did with an identity theft expert who had to learn about loss the hard way. It cost him a 40-year-old business, $300,000, and almost ruined his marriage and landed him in jail. You won’t want to miss John’s tips about how to avoid becoming the victim of an identity crime too.
If you believe you have been the victim of a cybercrime or just want to learn more, visit the Federal Trade Commission Web site. The government-sponsored site, OnGuardOnline.gov, also gives useful tips about how to secure your computer and your personal information. Knowing simple rules for staying safe and the protections you’re entitled to allow you to manage your finances without ever becoming a crime victim.