Tips for identity theft protection

An identity thief takes your personal information and uses it without your knowledge. The thief may run up debts or even commit crimes in your name. The following tips can help you protect yourself and your identity.

Clues That Someone Has Stolen Your Information

  • You see withdrawals from your bank account that you can’t explain.
  • You don’t get your bills or other mail.
  • Merchants refuse your checks.
  • Debt collectors call you about debts that aren’t yours.
  • You find unfamiliar accounts or charges on your credit report.
  • Medical providers bill you for services you didn’t use.
  • The IRS notifies you that more than one tax return was filed in your name, or that you have income from an employer you don’t work for.
  • You get notice that your information was compromised by a data breach at a company where you do business or have an account.

If your wallet, Social Security number, or other personal information is lost or stolen, there are steps you can take to help protect yourself from identity theft:

  • Protect your Social Security number
  • Do not carry your Social Security card in your wallet. If someone steals your wallet with your ID card/driver’s license and your SSN card, then they have all the tools they need to pose as you.

Fight “phishing” — don’t take the bait

Scam artists “phish” for victims by pretending to be banks, stores or government agencies. They do this over the phone, in e-mails and in the regular mail. If you get one of these, do not give out your personal information, unless you made the contact. Do not respond to a request to verify your account number or password. Legitimate companies do not request this kind of information in this way.

Keep your identity from getting trashed

Shred or tear up papers with personal information before you throw them away. Shred credit card offers and “convenience checks” that you don’t use. Thieves frequently go through the trash to get this information to impersonate you.

Control your personal financial information

California law requires your bank and other financial services companies to get your permission before sharing your personal financial information with marketing companies, but you also have the right to limit some sharing of your personal information. Read all the papers that you get when you open your account or that are mailed to you so you know how to tell them you do not want your identifying information sold.

Shield your computer from viruses and spies

Since we all have a digital life, thieves frequently steal your personal information and identity from your laptop, smartphone, etc. Lock digital access with a password. Use strong passwords with at least eight characters, including a combination of letters, numbers and symbols. They should be easy for you to remember, but difficult for others to guess. Use firewall, virus and spyware protection software that you update regularly. Download free software only from sites you know and trust. Set your web browser security to at least “medium.” Do not click on links in pop-up windows or in spam email.

Click with caution

When shopping online, check out a Web site before entering your credit card number or other personal information. Read the privacy policy and look for opportunities to opt out of information sharing. (If there is no privacy policy posted, beware! Shop elsewhere.) Only enter personal information on secure Web pages with “https” in the address bar and a padlock symbol at the bottom of the browser window. These are signs that your information will be encrypted or scrambled, protecting it from hackers.

Check your bills and bank statements

Open your credit card bills and bank statements right away. Check carefully for any unauthorized charges or withdrawals and report them immediately. Call if bills don’t arrive on time. It may mean that someone has changed your contact information to hide fraudulent charges.

Stop pre-approved credit offers

Stop most pre-approved credit card offers. They make a tempting target for identity thieves who steal your mail. Have your name removed from credit bureau marketing lists. Call toll-free at 888.567.8688.

Check your credit reports — for free

One of the best ways to protect yourself from identity theft is to monitor your credit history. You can get one free credit report every year from each of the three national credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Request all three reports at once, or be your own no-cost credit-monitoring service. Just spread out your requests, ordering from a different bureau every four months. More comprehensive monitoring services from the credit bureaus cost from $44 to over $100 per year. Order your free annual credit reports by phone, toll-free, at 1.877.322.8228, or online.