February 18, 2014 by Troy Baccus

Free Ways To Protect Yourself Against Identity Theft


Identity ProtectionOur official stance at Montana Life Group is that purchasing a solid identity theft protection service is the best way to protect your identity. That being said, not everyone has the disposable income available to purchase one of these services (prices can range anywhere between $12 a month to $300 a year).  Therefore we thought it’d be helpful to list out some of the free ways people can protect their identity.First, let’s divide your personal information into two categories: physical and virtual.  Physical information is just that, tangible items with your information on it.  Virtual information, on the other hand, is information found in the great ether of the Internet.

Protecting your physical information

If you store financial documents and records at home, keep them in a locked file cabinet.  Often burglars find your financial documents to be more valuable than your jewelry or electronic appliances, and as an added benefit to the thief, you’re unlikely to even realize it was stolen. 

Don’t keep your social security card in your wallet.  The reality is that you seldom actually need your social security card. You’re much better off simply memorizing your social security number, rather than having to reference your card each time someone requires your social security number. 

Buy a paper shredder.  Don’t throw away anything that has your personal information on it without first shredding it.  You know the credit card offers you get in the mail every day?  You might think it’s junk mail, but to the identity thief, it’s a goldmine.  Same goes for bank statements and physician statements.  As soon as you don’t need a document containing personal information, shred it.  

If you have prescription medicine, don’t throw away the empty bottles without first destroying the labels. 

Be careful with your mail.  We already discussed shredding some of the mail you receive, but you’ve also got to be careful with the mail yousend.  If you plan on sending mail that contains personal information, take it to the post office; don’t just put it in your mailbox with the red flag raised.  That red flag not only lets the mail carrier know you have mail that needs to be picked up, but unfortunately it lets the potential identity thief know your mailbox is worth exploring.

While shredding mail is a great idea, it won’t help if the identity thief gets to your mailbox before you do.  That’s why you should never have new checkbooks sent to your home.  If you’re going on vacation, have the post office hold your mail until you’re back.  

Of course these steps aren’t going to help protect your identity if you lose your wallet and an identity thief gets ahold of your credit cards, or if a burglar busts the lock on your file cabinet, but applying each of these steps to your life should help reduce your overall risk of identity theft.

Protecting your virtual information

Ok, so you’ve followed all the steps and feel pretty good about your identity being secure.  Not so fast.  Your personal information is likely stored virtually as well – whether it be on your social media account (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), the hard drive of your personal computer, the SIM card on your cell phone, in emails, etc. 

Planning on getting a new computer or a new cell phone?  Be careful with how you dispose of the old computer or phone.  Consider purchasing a program to overwrite the entire hard drive of your old computer before you throw it in the trash or donate it.  Make sure you’ve permanently deleted all personal information from your cell phone, including contact lists, emails, photos, and your SIM card. 

If you’re sending personal information over the Internet, hopefully the website you’re on has a “lock” icon on the status bar or is an “https” (as opposed to “http”) URL.  If not, use encryption software before you send your information.

Create strong passwords.  While it’s easier to remember your password if it’s simple, a complex password is a necessary step in protecting your identity.  A strong password includes both numbers and letters and ideally is case sensitive.  Don’t use the same password for everything!  If you’re using a modern computer, you likely need a password to log onto your computer as well as a password to access your email.  These passwords should be different.  If you do online banking, the password for your online account should be different than your email password.  Of course, the more complex your passwords are and the more passwords you have, the more difficult it is to remember them all.  Identity Guard includes a password manager as part of its identity theft protection service, but many companies offer password managers as a stand-alone service for as little as $5 a month.

Do you have a Facebook or LinkedIn account?  If you’re using social media, don’t overshare.  First of all, there’s really no reason for you to include too much contact information in your profile – skip including your phone number and address.  Check your privacy settings.  Limit who can see your information and posts to only those people in your network. 

Install anti-virus software, anti-spyware software, and a firewall for your computer. But don’t stop there.  Make sure to keep this software updated.  Always download the most recent patches, as identity theft hackers are always evolving. 

Spam can be more than just annoying; it can be an identity theft hacker’s portal into the personal information on your computer.  Be sure to never open attachments or click on links if you don’t know who sent you the email. Have you ever received one of those emails saying that you inherited money from a prince in Africa? Don’t open or reply to emails like that. Trust us, you aren’t helping a Nigerian transfer his money.  The FBI has some useful tips for avoiding this type of fraud.

Do you use Wi-Fi?  Make sure your personal Wi-Fi requires a password.  If you’re using public Wi-Fi, make sure it’s a secure wireless network.  Most operating systems indicate that a wireless network is not secure with an exclamation point icon. 

Did you notice our privacy policy?  If you plan on providing your personal information to a website, take the time to read the privacy policy (if they don’t have a privacy policy, think twice before submitting information).  A good privacy policy will tell you what personal information the website collects and whether it provides any information to third parties.

This is a lot of information to digest and the steps aren’t all easy.  In short, we know not everyone will diligently take the necessary steps to protect their identity; that’s why we recommend purchasing identity theft protection from a reputable provider.  But these steps aren’t impossible and, for the most part, they’re free!  Remember: whether you purchase identity theft protection or implement each of the steps above, it’s important to have an identity theft protection plan.

The FTC has a great article that recommends even more steps for reducing the risk of identity theft. If you’re looking to ensure your child’s identity is sage, CreditCards.com’s new article, “How to check your child’s credit report” is a great resource.
Identity Guard


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