Take a few small steps now to protect your identity, and you’ll avoid big headaches later.

Last summer I went to Moab, Utah, on a biking trip. As I stood in the desert resting, my phone rang. It was my bank, calling to verify an unusual series of small deposits into my account. Uh oh. That was the last thing I wanted to think about on my vacation, but sure enough, the deposits weren’t mine. They were likely tests by potential thieves to determine if anyone was monitoring the account.

As someone with a professional background in banking—and fraud in particular—I know how to prepare myself and prevent identity theft better than most. But the call still came. And the outcome could have been much worse.

So what is identity theft? Identity theft is the unauthorized acquisition and misuse of personal information. Most thieves attempt to acquire personal financial information in order to commit fraud, but that’s not a given. For example, thieves may sell information to someone else, rather than use it themselves. Furthermore, when we think of identity theft, we often think about fraudulent purchases, but the range of what can happen is much wider: Thieves can impersonate you to government agencies, open accounts in your name, sell your house, run scams, or attempt to gain control of your assets with just a few data points…and completely without your knowledge!

Identity theft is one of the fastest growing categories of crime in the U.S. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 17.6 million U.S. residents experienced identity theft in 2014, and those are just the reported cases. Most may not be aware their identities have been stolen; many known identity theft cases aren’t reported to law enforcement; and even then, cases are difficult to track and prosecute.

It’s hard to tell exactly where and when people’s information is compromised. Lax cyber-security at banks or merchant data breaches often take the blame, but identity theft can be much more low-fi: Think dumpster diving, stolen wallets, and casual surveillance, too.

Consider this scenario:

“Hey man, I hear it’s your birthday.”

“Yeah, it’s tomorrow!”

“Really, that’s great. You’re such a child of the 80s.”

“1986, baby!”

“Oh man, you must still have your first driver’s license photo.”

“Totally. Check out these bangs. Never again…”

(takes selfie with license for Instagram)

In this simple situation, a potential thief (and basically anyone in the immediate vicinity or on the Internet) may now have enough information to get a new or replacement Social Security card in your name in some states.

Yep. That’s real.

But don’t panic! Here are three ways to protect yourself:

  1. Safeguard identifying numbers.

It doesn’t matter where you are—the ATM, supermarket, on your laptop at Starbucks—people and cameras are watching. Stealing someone’s PIN is the easiest way to gain access to hard-earned cash, but as the scenario above showed, your date of birth and driver’s license number are also valuable—if only because thieves can use them to access an SSN and/or PIN. Moreover, if it comes out that you actually gave the information willingly to a thief, the onus is on you to prove wrongdoing. (Think a civil lawsuit.)

Here’s a checklist to help safeguard your information:

  • Cover your hand when you type in a PIN or password, especially at ATMs.
  • Don’t tell anyone your PIN or passwords—not even your partner, mom, or best friend from kindergarten.
  • Use a different PIN or password for each account, and if you find that difficult, rely on a password management system that will generate and keep strong passwords safe.
  • Make sure all items with ID numbers (or any number that’s unique to you) are out of site for photos and/or generally hidden from sight, including current and expired drivers licenses, date of birth, and SSNs.
  • Don’t send or save identifying numbers in texts, email, or photos.
  • Change your PINs and passwords regularly, especially if you’ve been notified of a data breach.

Pro tip: Visually scan ATMs or pinpads before using to make sure there aren’t exposed cables, added hardware, or pinholes. ATMs are very easy to hack; if the machine you’re about to use looks odd, go elsewhere.

For more information, check out the Federal Government’s resource site on identity theft.

  1. Ensure that your mail is secure.

It’s a federal offense to tamper with mail, yet surprisingly easy for thieves to do so since it can be so exposed on porches and driveways. Mail from banks, utilities, or loan-servicing companies is especially valuable. Thieves may also use you as a channel to secure stolen merchandise (and divert law enforcement), even if they’re not stealing from you directly.

Here’s a checklist to help secure your mail:

  • Pick up mail as soon as you can, and don’t leave it sitting overnight or weekends.
  • When you leave for vacation, put a hold on your address at the Post Office.
  • If your mail is delivered to an unlocked area, change your addresses so important items go to your work (or consider taking out a PO box).
  • Ensure your mailbox doesn’t allow items to be removed. (Mail slots installed in a door work really well.)
  • Check with the Post Office regularly to ensure no one set up mail forwarding for your address.
  • Shred all your mail—not just the important stuff—because it builds up a habit, and you won’t unintentionally put useful info into thieves’ hands.
  • If a package arrives that you didn’t purchase (even if you don’t see a fraudulent charge on your account), report it to the merchant immediately.
  • Know when all your statements are supposed to arrive (including utilities and merchant accounts), and if they don’t, report it immediately.

Pro tip: You can easily monitor statements by adding a check-box or date field to your monthly budget tracker!

For more information, check out the US Postal Service’s resource site on identity theft and mail fraud.

  1. Consider using credit bureau tools.

If you have a lot of risk factors that make you vulnerable to identity theft, like frequent travel or unsecured mail, credit bureaus can help prevent thieves from using your information to open an account in your name. These tools require a little management on your part, but they’re extremely effective:

Security Freezes

When you place a security freeze at the credit bureaus, they prevent financial institutions from checking your credit when someone attempts to open an account. Since a credit check is required to open most banking products, this will block new accounts from being opened in your name—even if a thief already has enough information to do it. If you want to open a new account, all you have to do is lift the freeze. One caveat: Freezes cost money. That said, they’re so effective that leading security experts actively use and recommend placing them at all three major credit bureaus, Innovis, and ChexSystems. (See link below for details.)

Prescreen Opt-Out

You know those letters saying you’ve been pre-approved for a new credit card? Thieves use those to commit “first-party fraud”: They open an account in your name without your knowledge, run up a big tab (or launder funds through a deposit account), and then disappear—and you’re stuck with the bill, a ding on your credit, and questions from law enforcement. That said, you can opt-out of pre-approval offers, and never receive them again! It’s effective at preventing first-party fraud, not to mention the bonus of receiving less junk mail.

Credit + Identity Theft Monitoring

The vast majority of monitoring services are snake oil, but a handful of them aren’t too bad. The rule of thumb: Don’t pay for them. That said, you may want to take advantage of existing monitoring services from your providers, such as credit cards. If you have monitoring services in your wallet already, read your guide to benefits—and know how to use them!

Check out security information and detailed instructions from journalist Brian Krebs on how to use these tools.

Pro tip: If you have kids, you can set up security freezes for them, too. Here’s an article on why and how.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Wow, that’s a lot of things to do, Ceceilia. I’m already overwhelmed!” Yes, it’s a lot, and it can be daunting. As an industry professional, I can’t even manage to do every single one all the time! The important thing to remember is doing even one or two steps will reduce your likelihood of being a victim. Start small, and you’ll get better over time.

Prior to Society of Grownups,
Ceceilia Allwein worked with credit- and debit-card
products for a global retail bank.

Any third party resources or websites referenced above are not under our control. We cannot guarantee and are not responsible for the accuracy of the resources, websites, or any products or services available through such resources or websites. Society of Grownups does not give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from a tax or legal professional.

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