Never give out personal information over the phone, on the Internet, or in the mail unless you originated the contact.
Would you buy a criminal an HDTV or a house? My guess is no. Unfortunately, last year 8.4 million people like you and me became victims of identity theft, unknowingly funding a con’s appetite for gadgetry, exotic trips, and even a high-priced home. In some cases, the delinquency stretched beyond what victims might find on a credit report: some are shocked to discover that, in addition to the financial fraud, criminal charges are posted under their names. What’s more, undoing all this takes a huge amount of time. So what can you do?
Protect your social security number. It may not be the secret formula for Coca-Cola, but your social security number should be well guarded. Avoid carrying it in your wallet or writing it on checks. And ask any company, such as your health insurer, that uses your social security number as an identifier on printed material to replace it with another number. When someone wants to know your number, ask why it is needed and how it will be protected.
Shred trash and keep mail private. Luckily, shredding anything that might help a thief open accounts—such as financial and health documents, and including expired credit cards—will keep identity stalkers away. Drop outgoing mail at a post office rather than put it in an unsecured mailbox. If you go on vacation or away on business, ask the post office to hold your correspondence.
Verify the source before sharing information. Some victims thought their bank’s service rep was on the phone and disclosed vital information. Little did they know they were speaking to a criminal. As a rule of thumb, never give out personal information over the phone, on the Internet, or in the mail unless you originated the contact.
Select intricate passwords. Place passwords on all accounts that allow you to do so—and get as creative as you can. That means your mother’s maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security number, your phone number, and even any word that appears in the dictionary are off-limits. The best passwords use combinations of letters, numbers, and special characters.
Store information in secure locations. What it boils down to, sadly, is that you’re likely to know the person who steals your identity. So keep your personal information in a secure place at home. At work, make sure your purse and wallet are stored safely.
Mind your credit report. When it comes to yearly checkups, you can add your credit report to the list. You are entitled to a free copy every year at www.annualcreditreport.com. This line of defense will turn up information on all accounts, from the newly opened to the long established. Mysterious inquiries from sources you don’t know should raise a red flag.
Identity thieves are getting smarter every day—but if you follow these steps, you’ll go a long way toward keeping your financial identity your own. DW
Jenny Mero is a reporter at Fortune and a contributing writer for several publications, including Essence and elecciones.