Identity theft occurs when criminals gain access to your identifying information, such as your name, address, Social Security number, banking information, or credit card information. This is accomplished in a variety of ways from robbery, to mail theft and dumpster diving, to computer fraud and phishing.

The best way to protect yourself against identity theft is to protect your bank and credit card information. This generally entails incorporating some privacy-protecting measures into your daily routine.

Tips for Preventing Identity Theft

  • Review your credit card statement. Your credit card statement is a big indicator as to whether someone else is illegally using your credit card information. Check your statement on a regular basis and look for unusual charges. If your credit card statement stops coming in the mail, notify your credit card company immediately; it is possible that an identity thief has ordered a change in address to prevent your from noticing unusual charges.
  • Protect your incoming and outgoing mail. Promptly bring in your mail every day to minimize the risk of it being stolen. Put a hold on your mail when you are out of town or ask someone that you trust to pick it up for you. When sending out mail, take it to the post office rather than leave it in your mailbox.
  • Shred documents containing personal or financial information. Shredding sensitive documents before you throw them out will eliminate the risk of dumpster divers coming across your personal information. Shred any bank or credit card statements, medical forms, and even credit card applications.
  • Cancel lost or stolen credit cards immediately. In the event that your card has been stolen by an identity thief, this will minimize the risk of the thief using your credit card to open additional accounts. In addition, remember not to leave your credit cards in your car or desk at work where they might be stolen.
  • Only use your Social Security number when absolutely necessary. Do not keep your Social Security card in your wallet or purse; do not put your Social Security number on checks; and when you are asked for you Social Security number, be sure to ask if it is absolutely necessary.
  • Do not provide sensitive financial information solicited over the phone or via email. A legitimate financial institution would not call or email seeking sensitive information. This type of information is best conveyed over a trusted and secure website. If you are calling your bank or credit card company yourself, that is one thing, but don’t take callers for their word if they claim to be from a financial institution and are requesting sensitive information over the phone.
  • Purchase virus protection and create passwords for all electronic devices. Creating passwords for your PC, laptop, smartphone, and tablet will ensure that sensitive information is inaccessible in the event that any of these devices is stolen.

What Should I Do If I Have Been the Victim of Identity Theft?

If the theft is hurting your credit rating, or has the potential to, you should report the theft to Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. These are the three major credit bureaus in the U.S. Also, be sure to report the theft to the local police. If the theft involves your Social Security number, be sure to call or visit the Social Security Administration website.

You may also want to consult an identity theft attorney who has experience with white collar crime and fraud cases. An attorney near you can advise you of your rights and let you know what the best course of action is, including the possibility of suing the perpetrator (if his identity is known) for compensation of any stolen money or credit.