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Small Steps to Reduce Identity Theft Risk

July 2016

Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®
Extension Specialist in Financial Resource Management
Rutgers Cooperative Extension

Identity theft is the stealing of someone’s personal identification information (e.g., Social Security number, bank account number, credit card number) to commit a crime (e.g., income tax refund fraud). You can never fully prevent identity theft, no matter how cautious you are, but you can minimize the risk of becoming a victim by taking steps to improve the security of your personal data.

Social Security numbers and driver’s licenses are two commonly misused forms of identification. Cards (e.g., Medicare) that use a person’s Social Security number are also used for fraudulent purposes. Identity theft can occur via hacked databases, stolen wallets, stolen mail, rummaging through garbage for information (“dumpster diving”), crooks fraudulently pretexting to obtain a victim’s data (e.g., posing as a banker or credit card company), and unsupervised access to information in a person’s home (e.g., a dishonest contractor).

Identity theft can result in both monetary harm (e.g., fraudulent credit card charges) and non-monetary harm. Examples of non-monetary harm are time spent trying to resolve credit problems, lost productivity at work, and emotional distress. Below are some small steps that cost little or nothing, to reduce the risk of identity theft:

  • Shred Sensitive Data - Shred documents with identifying information (e.g., credit card receipts and bank account statements). A diamond-cut shredder is better than a straight-line shredder.
  • Guard Your Mail - Deposit outgoing mail in collection boxes or at the Post Office, not in unsecured mail receptacles or an open rural route mailbox. Promptly remove mail from mailboxes as soon as possible.
  • Be Wary of “Cold Callers” - Never give personal information over the phone to unknown individuals who call you wanting to “verify numbers” or “check balances.”
  • Travel Light - Empty your wallet/purse of excess credit cards (carry one or two) and only carry around a passport or Medicare card when you need it.
  • Check Your Credit Report - Order a free credit report once a year from the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Review it carefully for evidence of identity theft (e.g., fraudulent accounts and charges).
  • Check Billing Statements - Save credit card receipts and match them against monthly bills. Look for evidence of identity theft (e.g., unauthorized charges).
  • Password Protect Your Devices -Lock down your computer and cell phone. Follow the instructions for your particular make and model. For example, “Settings,” “Tools,” “Security,” and “Lock Mode.”
  • Use Gel Pens for Check-Writing - Gel pens eliminate the potential for identity thieves to “wash” checks by erasing the ink and re-writing a “blank” check for a fraudulent purpose.
  • Control Your Credit Card -Avoid handing credit cards to others to swipe outside your view (e.g., waiters and store clerks). They could use a skimming machine or cell phone camera to record your data.

For more information about how to reduce your risk of becoming an identity theft victim, take the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Identity Theft Risk Assessment Quiz.