Your 5-Minute Guide to Protecting Your Identity
By MSN Money Staff
Here are 20 steps to protect yourself from identity theft -- and seven ways to clean
up things if you become a victim.
Thieves may sell your information on the black market or use it to obtain money,
credit or even expensive medical procedures. Unless you're vigilant in protecting
your records, you'll have to work even harder to repair the damage to your credit.
The average victim spends 30 to 40 hours rectifying the problem.
Some of the e-threats to your identity are:
Phishing. You get an e-mail that appears to be from your bank or
an online service, most often PayPal or eBay, instructing you to click on a link
and provide information to verify your account.
Pharming or spoofing. Hackers redirect a legitimate Web site's
traffic to an impostor site, where you'll be asked to provide confidential information.
Smishing. This is phishing done with text messaging on your smart
phone. It instructs you to visit a bogus Web site.
Spyware. You've unknowingly downloaded illicit software when you've
opened an attachment, clicked on a pop-up or downloaded a song or a game. Criminals
can use spyware to record your keystrokes and obtain credit card numbers, bank-account
information and passwords when you make purchases or conduct other business online.
They also can access confidential information on your hard drive.
You don't need to have a computer to become a victim.
Vishing -- voice phishing. You get an automated phone message asking
you to call your bank or credit card company. Even your caller ID is fooled. You
call the number and are asked to punch in your account number, PIN or other personal
Bank-card "skimming." Crooks use a combination of a fake ATM slot
and cameras to record your account information and PIN when you use a cash machine.
Your credit or debit card also can be skimmed by a dishonest store or restaurant
worker armed with a portable card reader.
Crooks will steal your wallet or go through your mail or trash.
More than half of identity theft cases involve credit card fraud. Checking accounts
are the second most popular target. But some crooks have other plans:
At least 250,000 people have been the victim of medical identity theft in the last
several years. Crooks use fraudulently obtained personal information to get expensive
medical procedures or dupe insurance companies into paying for procedures that were
The victims of about 5% of reported identity theft cases are children. The fraud
often goes undetected for years -- until the young adult applies for credit.
20 tips to protect yourself
You can take steps to protect yourself from identity fraud:
Keep your confidential information private. Your bank or credit card company won't
call or e-mail to ask for your account information. They already have it.
Keep an inventory of everything in your wallet and your PDA, including account numbers.
Don't keep your Social Security card or any card with your Social Security number,
such as an insurance card, in your wallet.
Stop getting banking and credit card information in the mail.
Monitor your bank and credit card transactions for unauthorized use. Crooks with
your account numbers usually start small to see if you'll notice.
Keep your vehicle registration and insurance forms in a sealed envelope in your
glove box and lock it and your car when at home or away.
If you conduct business online, use your own computer. A public computer is less
secure, as is wireless Internet.
Look for suspicious devices and don't let anyone stand nearby when you use an ATM.
Take your card and receipt with you. Keep your PIN in your head, not in your wallet.
Don't store credit card numbers and other financial information on your cell phone.
If you're job hunting using resume Web sites, don't apply unless the employer has
a verifiable address.
Protect your computer from vulnerability:
Keep system and browser software up to date and set to the highest security level
you can tolerate. Install anti-virus, anti-spyware and firewall protection, and
keep them up to date as well. When possible use hardware firewalls, often available
through your broadband connection router.
If you use wireless Internet access, make sure that you get help from someone who
understands wireless security when you set up your access point or router.
Back up your data and store it way from your computer.
Don't open e-mails from strangers. Malware can be hidden in embedded attachments
and graphics files.
Don't open attachments unless you know who sent them and what they contain. Never
open executable attachments. Configure Windows so that the file extensions of known
file types are not hidden.
Don't click on pop-ups. Configure Windows or your Web browser to block them.
Don't provide your credit card number online unless you are making a purchase from
a Web site you trust. Reputable sites will always direct you to a secure page with
an URL starting with https:// whenever you actually make purchases or are asked
to provide confidential information.
Use strong passwords: at least six characters, including at least one symbol and
number, and no reference to your name or other personal information. Use a different
password for every site that requires one, and change passwords regularly.
Never send a user name, password or other confidential information via e-mail.
Consider turning off your computer when you're not using it or at least putting
it in standby mode.
Don't keep passwords, tax returns or other financial information on your hard drive.
7 steps to clean up the mess
If you suspect your identity may be compromised, place a fraud alert with the three
credit bureaus. When you place an alert, you are entitled to a free copy of your
credit report. After that, take advantage of the free annual reports the bureaus
are required to give all consumers. Stagger your requests so that you get a report
every four months.
If you are the victim of identity theft, take the following steps:
Make an identity-theft report to the police and get a copy. File a complaint with
the Federal Trade Commission.
Also, contact the office of your state's attorney general; you may be able to file
a report there.
Close accounts that have been tampered with. Contact each company by phone and again
by certified letter. Make sure the company notifies you in writing that the disputed
charges have been erased. Document each conversation and keep all records.
Place a seven-year fraud alert or a "freeze" on your credit reports.
Begin the process of having the fraudulent information removed from your credit
Consider purchasing identity theft insurance. It cannot protect you from becoming
a victim of identity theft, but it can help you pay the cost of reclaiming your
Find victim support at the Identity Theft Resource Center.
Reproduced with permission of MSN Money.com, from Your 5 minute guide to protecting
your identity, MSN Money Staff , 2008; permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance