The threat of identity theft (ID theft) is real, and it can take months or years to recover once you become a victim. Recent statistics show that each year approximately 15 million U.S. residents have their identities used fraudulently. In addition, nearly 100 million Americans have their personal information placed at risk of theft each year when records in databases are lost, stolen, or accessed by unauthorized individuals. EDUCAUSE research shows that 21% of respondents to the annual ECAR student study have had an online account hacked, and 14% have had a computer, tablet, or smartphone stolen. Here are some tips to help prevent ID theft:
- Read your monthly statements carefully. Review bank, credit card, and pay statements, as well as other important personal accounts (e.g., health care, social security). If a statement has mistakes, charges you don't recognize, or doesn't arrive when expected, contact the business.
- Shred outdated documents. Make sure you shred any documents that show sensitive financial or medical information before you throw them away.
- Be careful when sharing personal info. Avoid responding to pop-up ads, e-mails, texts, or phone messages that ask for personal information such as your Social Security number, password, or account number. Legitimate companies don't ask for information in this way.
- Protect your online accounts. Create strong passwords or passphrases that are at least eight characters long and include a mix of letters, numbers, and special characters. Don't use the same password or passphrase for multiple accounts.
- Limit use of public Wi-Fi. If you must use a public wireless network, make sure it is fully encrypted before sending sensitive information. Use HTTPS (for websites) and SSL (for applications like e-mail) whenever possible, and use a VPN (virtual private network) if you have access to one. Save your most sensitive browsing and work for when you are in a place where you know the Wi-Fi is secure.
- Use secure devices. Whenever possible, encrypt your hard drive, make sure operating system and application software and plug-ins are up-to-date, and install antivirus software (and keep it current).
- Keep personal information private. Limit what you share on social media. For instance, don't share your vacation pictures publicly until you return home (so thieves don't target your empty home).
- Review your credit report every year. You can request a free annual credit report.
If you've been a victim of ID theft:
- Create an Identity Theft Report by filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission online (or call 1-877-438-4338).
- Use the Identity Theft Report to file a police report. Make sure you keep a copy of the police report in a safe place.
- Flag your credit reports by contacting the fraud departments of any one of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax (800-525-6285); TransUnion (800-680-7289); or Experian (888-397-3742).