Identity theft is growing at a pace that is unprecedented in any other type of crime. Americans are being attacked on every side – it seems someone's always getting ripped off, whether it's through the hacking of e-mail or social network site, credit card theft, skimming, phishing or something as simple as a stolen wallet.
But however it might happen, we can all agree that shielding our personal information with no risk may be impossible. Our information is "out there" and it's out there in a huge way.
But it is crucial to understand how your privacy can be compromised, and what the consequences are of such a breach. And remember, there are steps that you can take to put the odds in your favor.
Much of identity theft, according to the experts, comes down to hands-on activities like dumpster diving, finding a credit card statement or pre-approved offer that wasn't shredded and shoulder surfing, in which someone sees a credit card or PIN number over the shoulder of the victim. Mail theft is also very common.
Another way thieves steal information is through the Internet. They do this by phishing, which involves phony Web site information sent through e-mail. The recipient is asked to "verify" personal information. Skimmers are also used. These contraptions are set up on ATM machines or credit card swipers to steal and store credit card numbers until the thief is ready to download the information. This can even be done wirelessly via laptop or smartphone.
There are some simple things you can do to protect yourself, however. First of all, destroy your private records and statements. Shred them; cross-cut is best. Second, be sure to secure your mail. Empty your mailbox quickly or get a locked box. Even better, rent a post office box.
You should safeguard your Social Security number, and never carry your card with you. Don't print your number on your checks, and don't give it out unless absolutely necessary, and then only if you're sure of the recipient.
Don't leave ATM, credit card or gas station receipts behind, and never let your credit or debit card out of your sight.
Be sure you know who you're dealing with. When someone contacts you about your personal information, verify that they are who they claim to be before you give out any information.
Remove your name from pre-approved credit card offers, and be more defensive with your personal information. If someone asks for your Social Security number or other personal information, ask about their security policies, so that you know how your information will be handled after it is received.
Most importantly, monitor your credit report. Obtain and thoroughly review your report at least once per year, making note of any suspicious or unauthorized activity. If you spot something, alert your credit issuer immediately. You should also review credit and bank statements carefully as well.
If something goes wrong, contact the credit bureaus, and then the creditors for any accounts that have been tampered with. File a report with your local police department, and keep a copy for your files. Keep copies of everything involved in your efforts to clear up any fraud, including copies of written correspondence and records of telephone calls.