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How to Protect Against Identity Theft

It happens to the best of us. Despite your trash-shredding and credit-monitoring practices, you've become a victim of financial identity theft.

Even people who follow every – or mostly every – golden rule to protect their personal financial information are at risk of identity theft. And often, the thieves are someone known by the victims.

According to the 2010 Identity Fraud Survey Report released by the Council of Better Business Bureaus and Javelin Strategy & Research, almost half of all identity theft is committed by friends, neighbors, in-home employees, family members or relatives.

How can you protect yourself from identity theft and the havoc it can wreak on your credit scores? What should you do if you become a victim?

The good news is that there are specific steps you can take to protect yourself from becoming a victim. Learn how to

shield personal information, monitor your credit and resolve fraud if it happens to you.

Protect your personal information – Paper mail should be brought inside without delay. Outgoing checks and other personal documents should be placed in a U.S. Postal Service mailbox. Make sure your trash can't be used as a source for identity theft. Before you throw them away, shred any documents with personal information. Even expired credit cards should be cut up before they are thrown away. When you're online, never share any financial information with a site you don't know. Here's a tip: secure web sites (like the ones most banks use) use URL's labeled "https://bankname.com"). The extra "s" indicates the site uses a secure server.

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Take action – Self-detection is key to discovering fraud promptly. Monitor your accounts weekly through online account access and request copies of all three credit reports regularly to spot fraudulent accounts. Take advantage of the federally mandated right to one free credit report every 12 months from www.annualcreditreport.com. If you've already used your one free annual credit report, consider taking it one step further and signing up with an identity theft monitoring service like Identity Guard.

Resolve any fraud at once – By getting to the bottom of financial identity theft, you can curtail losses and protect your credit record. If you have been a victim of theft, inform your financial providers and place an "alert" at the three credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. File an official "identity theft report" with your local police, a state or federal agency or the police department in the town the theft occurred. Financial providers may also be able to offer you zero-liability guarantees against fraud, as well as resources to help you recoup any losses.

Also...

  • Consider consulting a lawyer to take legal action against creditors and/or credit bureaus that don't comply with your requests to remove fraudulent items from your credit report.
  • You aren't responsible for more than $50 if an unauthorized person uses your credit card, under federal law.
  • Photocopy the information inside your wallet in the event it's stolen.
  • Inspect your credit card statements each month before paying them, and check them more frequently online. This will ensure you catch a fraudulent charge immediately.

In addition, keep personal information out of sight. If your house is robbed, burglars will snatch credit cards and bank account statements just as fast as they would TVs and jewelry. When using a bank ATM, watch out for strangers looking over your shoulder "eavesdropping" on your debit card number. And never give out your Social Security number – or any personal financial data – to someone you don't know.

Remember, you are not powerless in protecting yourself from financial identity fraud. By monitoring credit card statements frequently, you should be able to discover fraud when it happens – and can do something about it.