Ten Ways to Protect Against Identity Theft

Identity Theft

Do you worry about identity theft? As it turns out, many of us do. According to a 2014 Gallup Poll, “Hacking” tops the list of crimes consumers are most concerned about.

Crimes people worry about

As companies push more commerce toward the internet, protecting our online data is becoming big business. Even for insurance agents and underwriters, the reality of cyber-crimes and identity theft has created specific insurance products designed to protect companies concerned with cyber liability.

Despite all this worry, shopping online has become ubiquitous in our economy. Nearly everyone has an Amazon account, subscribes to Netflix or Hulu, or uses online bill pay tools offered through their bank.

While a good many of us still gasp at the risk of putting our personal, or financial data online, the vast majority of us are becoming increasingly comfortable with the risk.

And while great attention is paid to online data breaches that result in identity theft, the reality is that it is not isolated to just online transactions. Sure, the big data breaches that target large corporation receive a lot of publicity, but simple, terrestrial, transactions like visiting the doctor, or buying gas present a real risk of identity theft too.

Identity theft happens in many ways, you could unknowingly provide information to a cyber-criminal while shopping on a site your thought was legitimate. Or, your local retail store could suffer a data breach. You could even come across a tampered credit card reader at your local ATM or gas station.

The risk that your identity faces on a day-to-day basis are too extensive to list. In fact, cyber-criminals are smart, and invent new ways to gain access to our information, in cunning and deceitful ways.

Unfortunately, virtually no one today can completely negate the risk of identity theft. But, we can all take some important steps to help prevent it.

Here are 10 sensible habits to adopt that will help you protect your identity:

  1. Limit what you carry in your wallet, and know what’s there in case it goes missing. First things first, don’t carry your Social Security card on a regular basis. Instead, keep it in a locked safe at home. Have a form of identification or some other card with your Social Security number (SSN) on it? Carry a photocopy of it instead of the real thing, and cut out or otherwise render your SSN unreadable. As for credit cards, only carry the ones you need. Finally, make photocopies of the front and back of the cards you always keep in your wallet and store them in your home safe. If one (or all of them) goes missing, you won’t have to search high and low for the card issuer’s contact information.
  2. Keep your computers, software and other electronics secure and up to date. This means using strong passwords or enabling passcodes – remember not to write them down. It also means installing firewall, spyware and virus protection. Keep everything up to date (and backed up) for the latest security enhancements. For your portable devices, consider installing software to remotely wipe your data or locate the device if it’s ever lost or stolen.
  3. Don’t over share. Does every entity that asks for your (or your child's) SSN really need it? Take a moment to think instead of automatically jotting it down. At the very least, maybe only the last four digits will do. In addition, be careful what you share online. Posting your full address, phone number, license plate number or your birth date online, even if it’s in a photo, may help others piece together a full picture of your identity.
  4. Do check your credit reports throughout the year. You’re entitled to a free credit report from each of the three bureaus once a year. And, since the information on each report is oftentimes largely the same, you can stagger your requests and receive a different report once every four months. Once you receive it, check your report for accounts and other activity you don’t recognize. Even a credit check from a company you haven’t done business with could be an attempt at identity theft. To order your free credit reports, call 1-877-322-8228 or visit www.annualcreditreport.com.
  5. Keep an eye on your accounts. Your account statements can alert you to identity theft sooner than your credit report, in most cases. Check regularly for unauthorized charges or withdrawals and other illicit activity, such as address changes or additional cards you didn’t request.
  6. Watch your surroundings. Whether you’re using the ATM or a portable device, you want to be sure others nearby aren’t watching as you type in your PIN or password. And, just because you don’t see anyone nearby doesn’t mean they’re not there. If you’re using a shared or public WiFi, everyone else on the same network may see the data, including passwords or account numbers, you submit. Be sure to conduct sensitive transactions on secure networks.
  7. Reduce your mail. Start by opting out of pre-approved credit card offers by calling 1-888-5OPT-OUT and following the prompts. This should stay in effect for five years and help curb the risk of someone else obtaining a new credit card in your name. Next, sign up for paperless billing with your financial and service providers and/or schedule automatic payments through your bank. The less mail containing personal and account details that comes to your home, the less likely it is to fall into the wrong hands.
  8. Be skeptical when someone asks for your information. Scam artists don’t always have to steal your information. Sometimes they convince you to give it up willingly by telling you via a phone call, email, snail mail or text that you won a prize or need to verify your account. To claim the prize or account, you’ll, of course, need to supply some sensitive information. Requests like these are almost always inauthentic – what’s known as a “phishing” scam. So, stay on guard and contact the entity through a known, verified method to inquire about the matter, rather than providing personal details on the spot.
  9. Mind your garbage. If you’re throwing out account statements or other documents with personal information, you’re making it easy for dumpster divers to learn a little, perhaps a lot, about you. They may even learn enough to take over one of your accounts. So, shred your sensitive documents and then recycle them – don’t just throw them out in the garbage.
  10. Tidy up at home. Tax returns, credit cards you use infrequently, checkbooks, passports, birth certificates – these and other important documents should all be stored under lock and key. Whether it’s in a home safe or a locking desk or file cabinet is up to you. And, don’t leave the code or key in an easily discoverable place.

What do you do if you suffer identity theft?

Even if you’re follow the best practices for protecting your identity, you can still become a victim of identity theft. If you become an unfortunate victim, you need to take immediate action:

Here are some recommendations:

  • Fill out the Federal Trade Commission's Identity Theft Affidavit.
  • Take your affidavit to the police and file a report. Be sure to get a copy for your records. It will come in handy if you need to close fraudulent accounts, straighten out your credit report and more.
  • Call your financial providers to request new account numbers and, if needed, cards.
  • Contact one of the three credit bureaus to place a fraud alert, which will encourage creditors to contact you before opening new lines of credit, on your credit report. The bureau you contact will share it with the other two.
    Experian: 1-888-397-3742
    Equifax: 1-800-525-6285
    Transunion: 1-800-680-7289

And, if you’re involved in a data breach and offered free credit monitoring, be sure to take advantage of it.

Conclusion

In today’s world of hyper connectivity and speed, it’s easy for your information to end up in the wrong hands. But, by being cautious with how you use and share your information, and checking for misuse, you can help keep your identity secure. You can also talk with your insurance agent to see if you can add identity theft protection through your home insurance policy, or as a stand-alone coverage.

Image Source: Bench Accounting

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