I am currently pursuing my Master’s degree in Criminal Justice. I’ve found that most people have a good idea of how to protect their houses from burglars, but few know the best ways to protect their identity and prevent identity theft. So, I’ve put together a list of 10 ways to protect yourself from identity theft and have drawn parallels to protecting your house. Hopefully drawing these parallels emphasizes the importance of these simple routine precautions that you can take to prevent your identity from being stolen.
- Don’t use Skeleton Keys. Just like you wouldn’t use skeleton keys for your home, don’t use them for your passwords. Avoid common words, pets or spouses names, birthdays, etc. Use a combination of capital letters, numbers, and symbols. One thing I like to do is use numbers or symbols that look like letters (ie a zero instead of an “o” or a 1 instead of an “L” or “I”)
- Change your locks. If you suspect someone has a key to your home or if you’ve moved recently you would change your locks. The same goes for passwords. If you suspect something, change your passwords immediately. Moreover, change your passwords every 4-6 months. (Think about it, if you could change the locks to your house for free you might do this more frequently too.)
- Don’t leave a key under the mat. Every burglar knows to look for your house key under your mat, under a plant or rock, or above the door frame. You wouldn’t believe how many people have their passwords written down in a computer spreadsheet, on a piece of paper in their desk drawer, or even on a stickynote on their computer screen. The only secure place to keep your password? In your head.
- Put up a fence. Something as simple as short fence deters burglars from your home. Similarly, put up a (fire) wall around your computer. Free software like ZoneAlarm will do wonders.
- Keep the cockroaches out. I suppose cockroaches don’t really pose a vital threat to your home’s security (unless the Orkin-man doubles as a thief); but, computer bugs can send all of your information to identity thieves. AVG Virus Software, Ad-Aware, and Spy Bot Search and Destroy are all free security software programs that you should have installed on your computer.
- Don’t open your door for just anyone. You wouldn’t let just anyone into your home, so don’t let just anyone have access to your personal records. Check with your employers, school, and financial institutions to see what documents they put your personal information on. Some schools still use Social Security numbers as the student ID number. And many employers put your entire social security number on your pay-stub. Ask to see what alternatives are available.
- Keep a shot gun under your pillow. Just kidding. Please don’t do this. Studies find that a gun is much more likely to be used against you than to protect you. So, just as I think you should avoid keeping a shotgun under your pillow, I would advise against credit monitoring services. My credit card sends me something every few weeks trying to get me to pay anywhere from $10-$40 a month so they will monitor my credit report for me. Don’t sign up for these. They are a rip-off.
- Check your smoke alarms semi-yearly. Your smoke alarm is there to protect you, but if you don’t check it regularly how do you know it’s intact and functioning?You should also check your credit report (for free) at least once a year. There are actually three main credit report agencies: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. You should check all three once a year. Better yet, check a different one every 4 months so you are checking three times a year. (ie, check Equifax in January, TransUnion in May, and Experian in September). Make sure there isn’t anything listed you aren’t aware of. If there is, report it– in writing. Usually when you get your free credit report they will also offer you a deal to check your credit score for $5 (which is much cheaper than the $30+ they often charge). This isn’t such a bad idea ever year or two, especially if you are unsure of what your credit score looks like.
- Don’t hang $100 bills or fancy jewelry in front of the window. That’s right- you wouldn’t hang all your valuables in front of the window so thieves know exactly what you have and where they can find it- would you? I think not. Throwing your important documents into the weekly trash is just like hanging cash in the window. Identity thieves know exactly where where to find all of the information they need – in your trash. So, shred any paper with you personal information on it– name, telephone number, address, bank’s name, account numbers, SS#, etc. Remember, even junk mail needs to be shredded since it often contains credit card applications that can easily be filled out in your name. (I realize that buying a paper shredder isn’t free. But, watch the sales and you can get a cross-cut paper shredder for less than $20. Until then use a scissors.)
- Make sure everything is in it’s place. When I get home from school/work I always do a quick glance around to make sure everything’s in it’s place. Occasionally my heart will start racing when I see some books, cds, pillows, etc. knocked on the ground until I realize it’s just the cat who has knocked them down. Nevertheless, this is a quick, almost unconscious exercise that I do daily to ensure my safety when entering my home. Likewise, I check my credit card and bank statements online several times a week. By checking your online accounts frequently, you will notice right away if something appears that wasn’t supposed to be there and can call the bank. This will (hopefully) be able to stop fraudulent charges before they get to be an enormous problem.
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