How To Protect Against Identity Theft

Scams to Watch Out For

Mail is a major vulnerability for identity theft. Bills, account statements and (especially) credit card offers are some of an identity thief's favorite things. Make sure your home mailbox is secure. When you send mail, use secure, opaque envelopes so no one can read account numbers or spot checks just by holding them up to the light. Note any sudden drop in the amount of mail you receive -- a thief may have put in a fraudulent change of address at the post office.

The ATM presents other opportunities for identity thieves. Only use ATMs in secure, well-lit locations, and don't use the machine if someone is standing too close or looking over your shoulder. Be aware of changes to your usual ATM, or signs directing you to another nearby ATM. Scammers have been known to use fake card scanners or even fake ATMs that gather your account information when you swipe your card. Take a look at the machine, too. Identity thieves have been known to install card readers at the card intake slot and cameras over the keypad to record your personal identification number as you type it in.

Home break-ins are a particularly unpleasant source of identity theft. Not only do you have to deal with the break-in itself, but if sensitive financial information was left available for the thief, your misfortune is just beginning. Use a paper shredder to destroy old documents. Keep old bills, tax information and other financial papers locked in a secure place. Treat them as though they're more valuable than cash -- to the thief, they are.

Don't ignore unusual phone calls or mail notices. If you suspect a call or letter is a come-on for a scam, contact the FTC. Don't give them any of your information. If you are contacted by a merchant or collection agency about an unpaid bill that you know you shouldn't be charged for, don't just hang up. It could be your first clue that someone has already stolen your identity. Get all the information about the fraudulent purchase you can, so you can dispute it formally.

We'll talk about what to do if you discover you're a victim of identity theft in the next section.