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10 Proven Steps: How to Avoid Identity Theft and Protect Your Personal Information

Chris Wilson - Writer for Top10.com
A woman who has realized her financial records have been stolen.
Hackers target organizations to steal personal data for financial gain, often selling it on the dark web. They can exploit your Social Security number (SSN) or commonly used passwords to impersonate you.

That's why identity theft protection companies are essential for safeguarding your data online. With cybercrime causing around $4 billion in losses each year in the US, the risk of ID theft is a reality we all need to face.

The prevalence of electronic data makes anyone vulnerable to identity theft. Without proper protection, you risk financial loss, credit score damage, and the daunting task of restoring your reputation and securing your personal information.

Don't worry, though. I've got 10 proven steps that you can use to protect your identity and personal information.

» Read these nightmarish ID theft stories from real victims.

1. Use Strong, Unique Passwords

Start by creating complex passwords for all your accounts. Mix up letters, numbers, and symbols to make your passwords tough to crack. You can also use a memorable phrase, like a line from a favorite song.

It's important to avoid reusing your passwords across different accounts. If hackers compromise one password, they can attempt to access your other accounts with it. They use automated scripts to test your breached password on different platforms, and even a small success rate can lead to major problems.

Password managers are fantastic tools for generating strong, encrypted passwords and securely storing them in the cloud, making it easier to manage your various logins.

2. Enable Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)

To enhance your account security, it's crucial to set up Two-Factor Authentication (2FA). This process adds a verification step, such as receiving a code on your phone, to your usual password routine. It's advisable to activate 2FA on all platforms that offer it.

Services like LifeLock complement 2FA by monitoring and alerting you about unusual activities and potential security threats. This includes dark web surveillance and tracking of social media and public records. You'll receive these alerts through email, phone calls, or texts, helping you to quickly address any security issues.

LifeLock offers 2FA for its services, further securing your account. This involves the standard password plus a verification code sent either via text message or through an authenticator app. This dual-layered approach ensures enhanced protection for your LifeLock account, keeping your sensitive information more secure.

3. Keep Your Software Updated

Regularly update the software on all your devices, as these upgrades usually contain security patches that protect against new threats. For added ease, you can enable automatic updates on your devices.

Although LifeLock doesn't provide reminders for software updates, it excels in offering protection against identity theft. It monitors various sources for your personal information and alerts you to any unusual activities or potential risks related to identity theft. By using LifeLock, you're better equipped to stay safe from cybercriminals, ensuring your personal information remains secure.

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4. Be Wary of Phishing Attempts

The FBI's 2021 Internet Crime Report states that phishing attempts are the most common type of cybercrime in the US, affecting over 320,000 victims. To protect yourself against phishing attacks, never click on links or download attachments from unfamiliar or suspicious sources.

Always check the URL of websites you visit, especially for sites that handle sensitive personal information or financial transactions like banking websites. Installing anti-virus software can also add an extra layer of protection.

» Not sure what's the right ID theft choice for you? Read about these LifeLock alternatives.

5. Secure Your Personal Documents

Always store sensitive items like passports and Social Security cards in a locked cabinet or safe. Also, shred documents and be selective about what you throw away. Although dumpster diving is rare, criminals can exploit you, particularly if they find your SSN.

Check your mail diligently. Even seemingly unimportant letters can be a disguise for scams. Be extra wary of unexpected mail, especially if it appears to come from state agencies.

6. Monitor Your Accounts and Credit Reports

Regularly check your bank and credit card statements for any unfamiliar or suspicious charges or activities. You should also review your credit reports annually to check for accounts or inquiries you don't recognize.

If you find any discrepancies, consider freezing your credit reports. ID thieves won't be able to open new accounts in your name unless you decide to lift or remove the freeze.

» What's the difference? Credit freeze vs. credit lock.

7. Be Cautious on Social Media

The Identity Theft Resource Center's 2022 report revealed a staggering 1,000% increase in social media account takeovers within a year. Protect yourself online by limiting the personal information you share and adjusting your privacy settings. Also, refrain from revealing sensitive details such as your full birth date, address, or vacation plans.

Instead, only share the month and day of your birth. And be cautious about accepting friend requests—only connect with people you genuinely know and trust.

8. Use Secure Networks

Secure your online activities by using safe networks, particularly for transactions or sensitive conversations. Don't use public Wi-Fi, which can be vulnerable to cyberattacks—opt for a reliable VPN instead. A VPN adds an extra layer of security by encrypting your internet connection.

If you need to access your bank account on your laptop at a café while traveling, don't connect directly to the café's unsecured Wi-Fi. Instead, activate your VPN to establish a secure data tunnel.

9. Check for Data Leaks Online

Actively monitor your personal information online to check if you've been exposed to data breaches. Use websites and tools like F-Secure and Have I Been Pwned? to see if your email address, username, or other sensitive details have been compromised.

By staying informed about data leaks, you can promptly secure your accounts and change passwords if necessary.

10. Report Lost or Stolen Cards Immediately

If your credit card gets lost or stolen, here's what to do:

  • Contact your credit card issuer: You can find their contact information on your statement or online. Federal law limits your liability for unauthorized charges to $50, but act fast to resolve the issue before fraudulent transactions occur.
  • Provide the necessary information: Give your name, address, and SSN to verify your identity. Your issuer may ask about the circumstances of the loss and review recent transactions with you.
  • Update your mobile wallet: If your lost card was linked to mobile payments, update your wallet with the new card details once you receive a replacement from your issuer.
  • Follow up and keep records: Send your issuer a letter or email summarizing the details of your loss, including your account number, when you noticed the card was missing, and when you reported it. Keep a copy of this communication for your records.
  • Monitor your credit card statement: Carefully review your statement after reporting the identity theft. If you spot any unfamiliar or fraudulent charges, contact your credit card company immediately.

Stay Informed About ID Theft

You can stay informed about cybersecurity by using federal government websites and searching Google for ID theft trends. If you learn about an institution being hacked, use free credit monitoring services as a proactive measure to protect your financial and personal information.

Also, stay updated on data breaches, especially if your information could be involved. After such incidents, take advantage of protective services, like Lifelock, to check for potential misuse of your information.

Chris Wilson - Writer for Top10.com
Chris Wilson contributes to Top10.com as a CSPM with over 23 years of experience in the North American security market. His expertise includes system design, project management, and solutions engineering. Chris has written for SDM and Locksmith Ledger and co-published various blogs within the security industry.