Protect Yourself from Identity Theft

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Identity theft remains a serious issue in the United States. How serious? According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 17.6 million Americans experienced identity theft in 2014, which represents roughly 7 percent of U.S. residents age 16 or older.

The BJS study also showed that the most common type of identity theft, with 16.4 million individuals, was the unauthorized misuse or attempted misuse of an existing account. Most of these victims discovered the incidents when they were contacted by their financial institution regarding suspicious activity.

The meaning? You have to be more careful than ever to prevent a criminal from stealing your identity and draining your bank accounts.

Fortunately, there are steps that you can take to lessen your odds of becoming a victim of this crime. Moreover, some of the steps require little more than common sense.

National credit bureau TransUnion, for example, recommends that you only carry essential personal documents with you. Leave extra credit cards, your birth certificate, your passport and your Social Security card at home unless you need them. This way, if you get physically robbed, your assailant will not have as much personal information to use against you.

TransUnion also recommends that you be careful when throwing away documents. The credit bureau recommends shredding receipts, credit card offers, bank statements and returned checks before tossing them in your garbage or recycling bin. Thieves are not above pawing through your garbage to uncover your personal information.

The Federal Trade Commission adds that you should refrain from receiving new personal checks from your bank through the mail. Instead, pick them up at the bank so that identity thieves have one less opportunity to nab your personal information.

One way to give identity thieves less personal information with which to work is to opt out of prescreened credit and insurance offers that come through the mail. You can log onto to prevent financial companies from sending credit card or insurance offers to your mailbox. Through this site, recommended by the Federal Trade Commission, you can opt out of receiving these offers for five years or permanently. Eliminating these offers from your mailbox means that information thieves will not be able to use them to nab your personal information.

Equifax, also a national credit bureau, warns consumers to be careful when giving out information either online or through the phone. As the credit bureau says, many scammers will try to pry personal information out of consumers by convincing them they are representatives of their banks, phone company or credit card provider.

The scam is a simple one, with identity thieves calling or e-mailing to say that consumers will lose access to an important account if they do not confirm some basic information. Don't fall for it. As Equifax says, your credit card company, utility or bank will never ask you to provide passwords or your Social Security Number by phone or through email. If you are unsure that you are speaking to a legitimate representative of your bank, utility or credit card provider, ask them to send you a request by mail.

A good way to protect yourself is to track your bank and credit-card accounts regularly. Study your bank statements for any questionable withdrawals or transactions. Look at your credit card bills when they arrive to make sure that there aren't any unauthorized purchases. Scammers rely on the fact that many victims fail to study financial statements when they arrive. Don't fall into this trap.

You should also track when your credit card statements regularly arrive. If your statement is late, contact your credit-card provider. A thief may have stolen your statement in an effort to steal your personal data. Of course, signing up for electronic statements could solve this problem.

Today's identity thieves have become proficient at using a computer to steal the personal information of consumers. Their computer savvy means that you have to be especially careful when online.

CNET says that protecting yourself online starts with creating strong passwords that are difficult for thieves to hack. To do this, make sure to create passwords that include text, numbers and symbols. Also, make sure that your passwords are long. The longer and more complex your passwords, the more challenging they will be for hackers to crack. Many will simply move on to easier victims.

Make sure, though, that you do not use the same password for all of your online sites. Once a hacker cracks one password, you can be sure that this criminal will not hesitate to try it out on many of the other financial sites that you visit.

CNET also recommends that you refrain from clicking on the attachments in strange email messages, even if these messages appear to be coming from a friend or co-worker. You never know if your friend has been a hacking victim as well.