How to protect yourself from identity theft

With security breaches on the rise, such as the recent Target credit card theft, you can’t be too careful how and to whom you share your personal information. According to the US Department of Justice, 7 percent of US households reported being victims of some form of identity fraud and with financial losses totaling upwards of $50 billion, people have to be vigilant.

Nowadays it’s fairly easy to steal an identity by obtaining different bits of information about someone and piecing them together like a jigsaw puzzle. Things you may not even think about such as your zip code, maiden name, or date of birth. And it’s not just unknown entities who are procuring your personal information and using it for their nefarious gain, it’s people you may think are legitimate and trustworthy such as babysitters, housekeepers or your latest online crush.

In today’s world, it is more important than ever to do your research, know the people around you and ensure that your friends, colleagues, and the people you surround yourself with are trustworthy.

Afterall, they have physical access to your property and credit cards, and they can get virtual access to all your identity pieces -- these are two dangerous things when put together. Security works as long as you keep those things completely separate in your life, but if you combine them, it puts you at risk and especially with new people coming in and out of your life frequently. I think it's a good idea to know who you're dealing with.

Experts agree that you can’t entirely prevent identity theft -- there are too many opportunities for criminals to steal your personal information -- but you can minimize the risks by taking some precautions.

1. Conduct regular background checks on yourself.

It’s important to know what information is out there about yourself and also to verify that it is accurate. You never know who else out there has the same name and may not have the most pious past, or your identity may have already been stolen without your knowledge. Make sure you are using a service that is reputable, do your due diligence.

2. Check your credit report at least once a year. 

Check your report at least annually in order to detect identity fraud early and on top of your financial situation. You are entitled to one free credit report per year -- make sure that you are using one of the major credit reporting agencies and not some fly by night that may be stealing your identity themselves.

3. Set up a P.O. box

This is one of the simplest ways to protect yourself online. Set up the P.O. box in a different zip code than your residence, attach your credit cards to this address so that fraudsters cannot figure out the zip code associated with your account. Do this with your insurance and vehicle registration as well.

4. Strengthen your passwords

The worst thing you can do is either keep the default password or use a term in the dictionary, including names. The best thing you can do is to use a phrase or word substituting letters for symbols or numbers. Either write this down or store it encrypted on your computer so that people are unable to access it without the encryption code.

5. Shred important documents before throwing away

A shredder is an important investment to keeping your information safe. Even those credit card offers your receive in the mail give fraudsters a plethora of information. When in doubt, shred it! Anything that contains evidence of your zip code, address, and personal information could give criminals just what they are looking for.

6. Shop only on websites that offer a privacy policy

You may not pay attention to little things like this, but it is extremely important. You should know how the company will handle your personal information. Look for the Trust-e symbol or accreditation from the Better Business Bureau.

7. Be wary of screaming deals on new websites

Remember the adage, "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is". It is fairly easy to set up a website these days and what better way to effortlessly funnel everything they need! Do your homework and research them. Find out how long they’ve been in business, how are they rated through the BBB? Are there other reviews online about their customer service or products?

8. Open links and unknown email at your own risk

Criminals are creative and find ways to steal your information even without you seemingly providing a thing. Suspicious links and emails should be avoided at all costs! Just because it seems innocuous, doesn’t mean it is. If you have any questions about a link or email, ask the person who sent it to clarify the contents.

9. Use prepaid credit cards or cash

Even though it sounds archaic, cash is one of the easiest ways to prevent your information to be compromised in any kind of digital breach. At the very least use a rechargeable credit card and only keep a few hundred dollars on the card. Even if the card gets compromised your entire bank account is not at risk. If another major breach happens you throw the card away and get a new one. This puts the power in your hands and you don't have to wait on the bank to ship you a new card when they get around to it. Use these cards when shopping online.

As our access to public information grows, so do the opportunities for criminals to steal your identity. With a little bit of proactivity, you can reduce your risk significantly and lower your chances of becoming a victim of identity theft.

Photo Credit: Robert Buchanan Taylor /Shutterstock

Erik Knight is the founder of Dirtsearch.org. Erik originally created the site in 2008 when a number of people asked him to find information (using public records) on their significant others. After doing this a number of times, he realized there was no single place on the Internet to search for public records inexpensively and quickly. After his original inception, DirtSearch has continued to grow and improve its accuracy and is the only free online "Background Check" website in the world. The site is fully automated and takes a few minutes to search what would normally take hours or days by hand. Over 130 thousand people a month nationwide use DirtSearch. For more about Erik Knight or DirtSearch, visit www.DirtSearch.org.

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