Every year, more than 10 million Americans are victims of identity theft, and the longer the identity theft remains hidden the more havoc it wreaks. Only a third of identity thefts are discovered within three months of the theft. Delayed discovery can cost identity theft victims thousands of dollars and create a financial knot that can take years to unravel. Repairing the financial damage caused by identity theft takes an average of 330 hours (but up to as many as 5,840) and costs a victim between $851 and $1,378, according to SpendonLife.com. In many cases, identity theft continues to haunt victims long after the incident is resolved:
47% have trouble obtaining new credit or loans
19% are forced to pay higher credit card and loan rates
70% have trouble removing negative data from their financial records
12% face possible arrest when their stolen identity is used to commit a crime
Identity thieves often target shoppers, travelers and tourists, taking advantage of their inattention, both at stores and online. Identity thieves need only a single piece of personal information to construct an alternative identity that can be used to open new credit card accounts, purchase cell phone services, and rack up credit card bills.
Identity protection experts recommend that consumers take the following steps to protect their identity from theft:
- Keep important documents such as birth certificates, social security cards, passports and credit cards you’re not using locked in a safe place; don’t carry them with you.
- Do not list personal information such as your full birth date, home address or telephone number on social networking sites like Facebook.
- Keep track of snail mail. Contact creditors immediately if your bill doesn’t arrive on time.
“Follow your billing cycles closely,” recommended Lucy Duni, vice president of consumer education at TrueCredit.com, in an article on CreditCards.com. “If a credit card or other bill hasn’t arrived, it may mean that an identity thief has gotten hold of your account and changed your billing address.”
- Bank and credit card statements should be reviewed at least twice a month. Look for charges from unfamiliar individuals or companies.
- Trust your gut. Don’t use a suspicious-looking ATM or retail card reader. If you see an extra piece of plastic protruding from the card slot, it could be a skimmer used by identity thieves to capture credit card information.
- Beware of hovering strangers when swiping credit and debit cards.
- Before connecting your laptop or smart phone to a free Wi-Fi network, upgrade your security program.
- Because cards must be activated from the phone number provided to the creditor, thieves won’t usually take unactivated credit cards. Trick thieves by leaving the please activate sticker on your cards after activation.
- Keep track of your card at checkouts, retail counters and restaurants. An employee who turns away to shield your view could be using a cell phone camera or handheld skimmer to record information.
- Always check your card when it’s handed back to you to make sure it’s yours and hasn’t been swapped.
- Keep a record of credit card account numbers and contact phone numbers. To minimize your financial responsibility, report missing cards to the police and the card issuer immediately.
- Go paperless to limit thieves’ access to your personal information.
- Prevent tip fraud at bars and restaurants by paying tips in cash to prevent employees from altering tip amounts.
- Get a copy of your credit report every year and look for unexplained items.
- Avoid being phished; never click on emails from unknown senders. Be leery of emails from banks and credit card companies that request personal information. Identity thieves are adept at creating look-alike websites. Never click on email links; always input the site address manually to insure that you arrive at the legitimate website.
- To deter thieves from hacking into your personal accounts, maintain security updates and activate your computer firewall. Never click remember password when prompted. Create passwords that are at least 7 characters and include numbers, letters and symbols.
- When purchasing online, look for a padlock on the browser screen indicating a secure payment link.
- Experts agree; identity theft protection is the best way to protect your personal identity.