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Steps to Reduce Your Identity Theft Risk

January 2021

Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®
Distinguished Professor and Extension Financial Management Specialist Emeritus
Rutgers Cooperative Extension

Identity theft is the stealing a person’s personal identification information (PII). Identity theft is typically not a “stand-alone” crime but, rather, part of another crime such as credit card, bank account, or income tax fraud. Commonly stolen pieces of PII include Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, and driver’s licenses.

Since much of Americans’ PII is in the hands of employers, government agencies, and merchants, it is virtually impossible to eliminate the risk of becoming an identity theft victim. This risk can be reduced, however, by following prudent risk reduction practices. Below are ten steps to reduce your risk of becoming a victim.

  • Break Risky Habits - Avoid “over-sharing” personal information on social media, leaving personal information within view and accessible for misuse by others, unsafe internet connections (e.g., public wifi), weak passwords, and not shredding documents with sensitive data (e.g., bank account numbers).
  • Guard Your Mail - Use a locked mailbox or promptly remove mail from the mailbox following delivery and deposit outgoing mail at the Post Office or in collection mailboxes- not in unsecured mail receptacles.
  • Just Say No- Never provide personal information over the phone to unsolicited callers. Ditto for e-mailed requests with suspicious links. Tell yourself “no, this is not a legitimate request “ and simply hang up or delete.
  • Know the Warning Signs - Take immediate action if any of the following events occur: a request for payment for purchases you did not make, suspicious entries in a credit report, contact from the IRS, declined credit cards, denied medical services, and erroneous bank or credit card statements.
  • Pay Cash in High-Risk Situations - Do not let your credit card out of your sight and let anyone take it away from you to swipe it and possibly skim, photograph, or record the numbers. Similarly, consider paying cash for gas to avoid the risk of having a skimming device attached to the pumps.
  • Travel Light - Empty your wallet and do not carry around extra credit cards and unnecessary ID cards. Do not carry around a Social Security number or passwords in a wallet or purse. Memorize them and/or leave them at home in a secure location. Some people also use a password manager program to secure their data.
  • Review Your Credit Report - Contact each of the “Big Three” credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) annually for a copy of your credit report that might provide evidence of identity theft (e.g., accounts opened in your name and fraudulent purchases).
  • Keep Good Records - Save credit card purchase receipts and match them against monthly bills. Ditto for bank deposit and withdrawal slips to check against monthly statements. Make a list of credit card billing dates. If a billing statement is late, follow up promptly with the creditor.
  • Be “Internet Cautious” - Never enter PII on a public wifi system (e.g., at an airport) and always check for the letters “htpps” in a web site address and a closed lock icon to indicate that a web site is secure. If you absolutely must get a message with personal data out immediately, activate the wifi hotspot on your cell phone.
  • Consider a Credit Freeze - Consider this anti-fraud measure that restricts access to your credit report to thwart fraudulent accounts. Credit inquiries are denied so fraudsters typically cannot get new credit in your name. Remember, however, that you will need to “thaw” your credit for new credit, bank accounts, and utilities.

The effects of identity theft can last years, even decades, including a drop in a victim’s credit score and the emotional effects of feeling “violated.” The bottom line is that we can never let out guard down. Risks for identity theft will always surround us and vigilance is required at all times.