Every week the news seems to be filled with stories of hackers stealing personal information from online retailers, social media sites, banks and credit agencies.
And while you may feel justifiably worried about your online security, the biggest risk of identity theft may actually reside in your mailbox, desk drawers and filing cabinets.
Any stranger who has access to your home-cleaners, contractors, even nannies and babysitters-represents a potential identity-theft threat. Even if these people don't do the actual "stealing," they could be scoping out your home for partners, pointing out places where your confidential information is there for the taking.
What do these thieves look for?
- Passports, Social Security cards, copies of birth certificates, tax returns and other identity-revealing documents.
- Bank, brokerage, mortage, and credit card statements.
- Unused credit cards, debit cards and checks.
- Credit card and balance transfer offers.
A savvy thief can use the information in these documents to apply for new credit cards or loans or request that payments from banks and investment accounts be directed to different accounts or addresses. Or the thief might sell your information to others. It could take weeks or months for you to discover that your security has been compromised, and by then thousands of dollars in fraudulent charges may have been made in your name.
Nine strategies for protecting your identity
While it may not be possible to totally eliminate identity theft risk, these nine common-sense strategies can help you reduce its likelihood without a huge investment or money or time.
1. Know who is doing what in your home
Before you hire any stranger who will have access to your home, conduct a background check. Google them to find out if they have a police record or have been involved in any suspicious activities or groups. Ask for and contact all of their references. If you hire someone through an outside agency, check to see if the organization bonds its employees. If not, you might wish to use a firm that does.
2. Make it more difficult for thieves (or their partners) to access "sensitive" information.
Rather than leave a key for service people, consider installing electronic door locks with codes that you can change every time they come. You may also want to install deadbolt locks on the doors of certain rooms (such as your home office or attic) where you store personal information.
3. Fully destroy unneeded paper and plastic
You cut up expired credit cards before throwing them away, right? You should do the same with unneeded tax returns, bank, investment and credit card account statements, especially if they contain Social Security numbers or other highly confidential information. If you don't have the time to shred these materials yourself, take them to a secure shredding center where you can witness their destruction.
4. Shred any unneeded credit card and balance transfer offers
Credit card offers often come with a customized response code an identity thief could use to apply for a card in your name. If the thief knows your Social Security number, he may have the last piece of information he needs to apply for the card and have it sent to another address.
And many balance transfer offers come with pre-printed checks. An identity thief could use these checks to pay off his own loans or balances of other fraudulent credit cards. If you won't want to take advantage of these offers, destroy them.
5. "Safe-guard" your trail
Keep key identity documents such as passports, birth certificates and Social Security cards in a safe deposit box, and consider investing in a large, high-quality, flame-proof office safe to store unused credit and debit cards, checks, financial documents, backup hard drives, thumb drives and DVD-Rs, and valuables such as fine jewelry and watches. Alternatively, keep these materials in high-quality, heavy duty locking file cabinets. And to keep thieves from stealing account statements and credit offers delivered by mail, replace outside "accessible" mailboxes with a sturdy lockable mailbox that can be firmly mounted to a post.
6. Don't forget your "online accessibles"
Resist the temptation to keep computer and smartphone login credentials and passwords in plain view on Post-it Notes or Rolodex cards. If storing these "access lists" in a safe or lockable filing cabinet or desk drawer isn't possible, keep hide them in a place that's hard to find, such as hidden in the pages of a non-descript best-seller on your bookshelf or taped to the underside of a sofa or bedframe.
7. Secure your digital data as well
In this day of increasing online threats, frequently backing up your computer data is a must. But an unprotected storage medium can make all of your other efforts meaningless. If you must keep an external hard drive, thumb drives or DVD-R drive permanently connected to your computer or server, install backup software that can password-protect and/or encrypt your backup files. Better yet, consider uploading your backups to cloud-based destinations such as Google Drive and Dropbox.
8. Change over to paperless statements
Many credit cards, banks and investment companies offer paperless account statements. Not only does this option reduce your "identity paper trail," it's also good for the environment. And if you ever need to print out a particular statement they're usually available in PDF format.
9. Check your credit history early and often
Even if you're achieved the highest level of "identity vigilance" in your home, it's also good to find check your credit history every now and then. Once a year you can request a free credit report from the three major credit report agencies: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. These reports will provide detailed information on all lender accounts registered in your name. If the number of accounts, lender names, current balances or payment histories don't align with your own records, this could be an indication of identity theft (for more information on credit reports, click here).
You don't need to turn your home into a fortress to keep your personal information safe. A little extra vigilance at the front door and a bit of organization and consolidation in your office can go a long way toward keeping identity thieves at bay.
Daniel Flanagan is a financial advisor located at Canby Financial Advisors, 161 Worcester Road, Framingham, MA 01701. He offers securities and advisory services as an Investment Adviser Representative of Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
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