Make sure your computer is protected by anti-malware software (like McAffee or Symantec). We talk more about this in Chapter 11: Malware.
Make creative passwords and change them periodically. It’s generally a bad idea to use a single username and password for every online account you use. Once your password is obtained, it’s fairly painless for a perpetrator to access your other accounts.
When you select a password, think of it as more of a passphrase. You’re not limited to using a single word! So make it a short saying involving a couple words.
When setting passwords, use other characters, such as numbers and punctuation to make it more difficult to guess.
When setting passwords, use words that you’ve made up. Memorable to you, not guessable by thieves.
When you discard a computer, make sure that you completely destroy the hard disk so that data can’t be read from it.
Monitor your credit and debit transactions. If you see suspicious activities, contact your credit card company.
Check your credit report annually. Credit report companies are required by law to provide a free credit report annually upon request. The site to use is www.annualcreditreport.com. Note that while they must provide you a credit report, they aren’t obligated to reveal your credit rating. You may have to pay for that if you’re interested in that number.
Many banks have debit cards that can be used like a credit card, but which do not provide the same protection as credit cards.
Keep photocopies of all the documents in your wallet or purse and store these in a safe place. If your wallet is lost or stolen you can quickly deal with the lost cards before too much damage occurs.
Be careful how you handle, carry, and dispose of your personal/private information. First, don’t carry your social security card with you. Second, don’t put anything personal or identifying in the trash.
Dr. K’s rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t want to read the contents of a document on the front page of a national newspaper… SHRED IT! I recommend a cross-cut shredder that makes it very difficult to put papers back together. I would shred all pre-approved sign and mail credit offers (whether credit cards or loan applications). In the digital age, I think a good shredder should be standard home equipment.
Use social networks carefully. Avoid posting sensitive information or giving access to unknown people/applications. You can read more about social networks in Chapter 6: Social Networking.
If you find someone using your name online, read the profile carefully to determine whether it might be someone who happens to share your name or if it is an imposter.
If it’s an imposter, immediately contact customer service and request that the fraudulent profile be taken down. Do not contact the owner of a fraudulent profile. The last thing you need to do is add fuel to the fire.
If you decide to sign up for identity-theft protection, weigh your options carefully. Find out what each company provides, and evaluate whether its services fit your needs. According to Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, identity-theft protection services don’t monitor Social Security number fraud (a point of contention with the LifeLock advertising), debit/check card fraud, criminal identity fraud (where a criminal assumes your identity when arrested), medical fraud, or prior instances of identity theft. As Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, notes, these crimes “are more difficult to recover from than financial identity theft.”8
Be cautious when dealing with phone solicitations. It’s a good idea to consider putting yourself on the National Do Not Call Registry (www.donotcall.gov). The list is good for 5 years, but does still allow you receive calls from survey companies and non-profit organizations.
Always err to the side of paranoid when receiving a phone call. I have occasionally received calls from someone identifying themselves as being from my bank or other financial institution, and the first thing they do after calling me is ask me for identifying information. My response is always something like this, “You called me. Why don’t we start by you identifying yourself?” Be willing to take control of an uncomfortable situation. If they’re legitimate, they’ll have no problem giving you the confidence you need to verify their identity. If they’re trying to obtain personal information illegally, they won’t stay on the line long.
Here are a few things to keep an eye out for:
- Bills from an unknown credit account
- Unauthorized charges on credit, long-distance telephone, or bank accounts
- Calls from collection agencies regarding unfamiliar debts
- Checks disappearing from checkbooks
- Bank and credit card statements don’t arrive on time
- Credit reports shows unauthorized accounts
- Being turned down for a credit card, mortgage or other loan, or other form of credit due to unauthorized debts on a credit report.9