Identity theft, which hits an estimated 9 million to 12 million Americans per year, carries a per-victim cost of nearly $5,000, according to some reports. So the need to protect yourself is obvious.
Protection doesn’t have to be costly in terms of money or time. Here are 10 quick, easy and free ways to reduce your risk:
1. Don’t mail outgoing bills from your unlocked home mailbox
Instead, mail them from the post office or a secure U.S. Postal Service drop box. The reason: Thieves cruise neighborhoods, looking for upright flags indicating outgoing mail, and steal check-containing envelopes addressed to mortgage, credit card and other vendors. Not only do invoices and checks reveal account information, but checks can be “washed” to steal money from your bank account. Also try to retrieve incoming mail soon after its delivery.
2. Get off mailing lists for preapproved credit card offers
These are a gold mine for mail-stealing identity thieves. Call (888) 567-8688 from your home phone or visit OptOutPrescreen.com. This service, run by the three credit reporting bureaus, requires your Social Security number when you call by phone. Avoid that step by opting out online. Stop other so-called junk mail at dmachoice.org.
3. Build better passwords
Those with at least 12 keystrokes — versus the often advised eight characters — can take hackers using automated programs (or their own know-how) longer to crack. For easier recall when mixing upper- and lower-case letters, numerals and symbols, consider using your favorite song or poem as a guide. For instance, Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” refrain becomes “Wmuwiao@!”
4. Consider free antivirus software
Many Internet and cellphone providers offer subscribers free antivirus and malware protection software. Sometimes they include pricier “security suite” products. Many leading vendors also provide free downloads, including AVG, Avast, BitDefender and MalwareBytes.
5. Password-protect your smartphone
This is done by only 1 in 3 users. Do it with a PIN that isn’t 1234, 0000, 2580, 1111 or 5555 — the most easily hacked. Set it on auto-lock and install a location-tracking app, which is already installed on iPhones but needs to be activated.
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6. Avoid making copies at libraries or businesses
This applies when you’re copying medical, tax-related or other sensitive documents on digital copiers. They are often leased, and information stored on their hard drives can be retrieved by scammers who subsequently purchase them.
7. Use a crosscut shredder
Use a shredder before disposing of documents that contain key personal identifiers — account numbers, passwords and PINs, Social Security numbers and birth dates. Consider shredding items with your name, address and phone number. So-called dumpster diving is messy and less than stealthy, but still accounts for about 4 percent of identity theft cases.
8. Access your free credit report
Do this once a year from each of the three major credit bureaus. Regular reviews can lead to discovering fraudulent credit accounts opened in your name. You can also monitor your credit for free using Credit.com’s Credit Report Card, which updates your credit scores monthly.
9. Never click on links in emails from strangers
This also applies to those purporting to be from a government agency. (Uncle Sam usually sends official correspondence by mail.) Don’t provide Social Security numbers or other sensitive information to unsolicited callers. When scanning the Web, access websites by typing the address yourself rather than relying on links found through search engines.
10. Keep doors and drawers secure
Identity thieves can’t steal your information if they can’t get to it. Keep computers, paper files such as bank or credit card statements, passports, Social Security cards, earnings statements, birth certificates and any other documents with personal identifying information behind closed — and locked — doors or in locked drawers. Always be aware of who has access, such as household employees or work crews — and even family members.