How Can I Protect Myself Against Identity Theft and Fraud?

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In an effort to help readers better manage their finances, mental_floss has teamed up with personal finance expert and award-winning podcast host Farnoosh Torabi to answer your most pressing credit- and money-related Big Questions.

Data breaches of sensitive financial information are an unfortunate reality of the digital age. Today, hackers have the ability to access millions of people’s personal information—their names, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, and passwords.  But consumers play a vital role, partnering with financial institutions. Taking steps to protect yourself against fraud and identity theft are more important and powerful than ever.

Torabi tells mental_floss that preventing credit card fraud and identity theft requires vigilance. If, like most people, you’re regularly out and about, it makes sense to harness the power of your smartphone in your fight against identity theft. “You should check your bank and credit card accounts routinely,” Torabi suggests. “Consider downloading any and all apps linked to your financial institutions so you can check your account in real time on the go.” Sign up for alerts so your bank can signal via email or text if something fishy has happened, “such as a double charge or an uncharacteristically large purchase,” she notes.  Just as important: ensuring your bank and credit card companies have your most up-to-date information on hand, including mailing address, phone number, and email.

You should also be regularly monitoring your credit score for dramatic changes and your credit reports for suspicious activity. There’s no excuse not to view your credit report: By law, you’re permitted to get a free copy of your credit report every 12 months from the three major credit reporting bureaus. Be on the lookout for incorrect information, accounts you didn’t open, or balances on accounts that you haven’t used, Torabi advises. “If you spot something suspicious, call your bank immediately and have them cancel your card and reissue a new one,” she says. “Your bank or credit card company will issue you a new card as soon as they can and begin an investigation.”

Keep in mind that your behavior online can also make you vulnerable. To make it harder for would-be thieves to target you, choose complex passwords with a mix of numbers, letters, and symbols, and change your passwords regularly. Try to only conduct online banking at home or on a Wi-Fi network you trust. Make sure that your email spam filter is doing its job of keeping phishers out of your inbox, and if you get an email from your bank asking for your personal information, be wary. Contact your bank directly to confirm that the email is legitimate before giving any information. And be cautious about what you share publicly on social media. Even seemingly innocent details about your life—your full birth date, for example—can be enough to give thieves the information they need to open an account in your name.

To defend yourself from low-tech attempts to steal your financial information, regularly shred all paper documents containing your personal information (such as bank or credit card statements, medical bill receipts, and credit card offers) before you throw them out or recycle them. And immediately contact your credit card company to report a lost wallet or credit card.

Torabi says that if you’re a victim of fraud or identity theft, your credit score may possibly be affected. “But if you can prove that accounts were opened without your authorization or that an unauthorized user racked up debt on your card, you should be able to convince the credit reporting agencies to clean up your account,” she says. This process can be time-consuming, though, which makes prevention and early detection of fraud the most vital step of them all.