Identity theft costs Americans more than $5 billion a year.
It was shocking to watch an MSNBC Dateline program on identity theft. Once thieves get your information, they start making purchases in a matter of minutes. And the report showed how identity thieves operate all over the world, with their prime target being Americans.
What can you do to prevent identity theft? Here are 10 tips:
- Watch what you put in the trash and recycling bins. Shred or tear up any items that contain your Social Security number or date of birth. Also destroy charge-card receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, checks and bank statements, expired charge cards you’re throwing away, and credit offers that come in the mail. Call 1-888-5-OPTOUT to stop receiving pre-screened credit offers.
- Don’t leave outgoing mail in your home mailbox if it has any personal or financial information about you. Use a secure mailbox instead. Remove mail promptly from your mailbox.
- Every year, order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies. Check the accuracy of the reports and make sure only activities that you’ve authorized are included. You have the right to get a free copy of your credit report, once every 12 months, from the three companies -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. For access to your free credit report, visit www.annualcreditreport.com.
- Pay attention to billing cycles. If the bills you’re expecting don’t arrive on schedule, it may be because an identity thief has taken over your account and changed your billing address to cover his or her tracks.
- Be careful about giving out personal information on the phone, through the mail, or over the Internet. Be on the lookout for scams. Some people pose as Internal Revenue Service agents or other government workers.
- Be especially careful about giving out your Social Security number. This is the main thing people need to steal your identity.
- Arrange for your checks to be sent directly to the bank or credit union so that they can’t be stolen from your mailbox.
- Be careful with credit card receipts in stores and restaurants. If the account number is on the receipt, don’t leave it behind.
- Be aware that some scam artists target older boomers and people 50-plus.
- If you have in-home help or if other persons have access to your home, lock your personal information in a secure file cabinet.
See the following Federal Trade Commission booklets for information on ways to help you guard against and recover from identity theft.
If you've been a victim of identity theft, call the FTC's identity theft hot line at 1-877-438-4338.