Tips on how to prevent identity theft

By:    Updated: December 19,2016

In order to understand how to prevent identity theft, it is essential to understand how thieves steal personal identities. It often starts with the misuse of identifiable information such as an individual's Social Security number, credit card numbers or other account information. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), thieves regularly use a variety of tactics to gain a person's information including:

  • Dumpster Diving: Thieves will sift through trash seeking discarded bank and credit card statements which may contain identifiable information.
  • Skimming: Thieves use special devices attached to credit card readers to capture your credit card information when a retailer processes a payment.
  • Phishing: Thieves will send email spam pretending to be your financial institution asking for personal information.
  • Changing Addresses: Thieves may have your credit card and banking statements sent directly to them.
  • Old-Fashioned Stealing: Thieves will steal wallets, purses, mail and personnel files, all which often contain credit cards, financial documents and sensitive information.
  • Pretexting: Like a conman, a pretexter uses false pretense to gain identifiable information. The pretense often sounds legitimate, but the information gained is used to access financial and credit card accounts.

How do you deter thieves from stealing your identity? There is no surefire way to prevent identity theft, but there are steps you can take to decrease the odds of someone stealing your identity.

Online Deterrents

The emergence of mobile technology and the increase in online banking and shopping has provided a virtual platform for thieves to gain identifiable information. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), there are several key tips for protecting your identity online.

  • Use the highest level of security allowed. Never use the default settings for security.
  • Know the privacy policy of the websites you use. Some sites will use or sell your information in order to display advertisements.
  • Use the least amount of information to register for a site. If the site is using information like your birthday simply for promotional reasons, consider using false information.
  • Create screen names that do not include identifiable information such as your name and year of birth.
  • Change your passwords regularly. Do not use information that can easily identify you, such as the name of your child or pet. It is advisable to use a minimum of eight characters, include numbers and symbols and use "non-dictionary" words whenever possible. Never share your password.
  • Verify emails asking for password resets or identifiable information. These emails are often spam and used to gain access to your accounts. Again, read the privacy policy of the site. Many will openly claim to never ask for identifiable information via email.
  • Do not post identifiable information including your phone number, address, Social Security number, etc. when blogging, networking or posting photos.


Shopping online presents another set of security issues since you are authorizing payment from your financial institutions. If you are shopping online, the IRTC suggests several key tactics to help ensure secure transactions.

  • Research the vendor, looking for positive and negative reviews from consumers and business institutions such as the Better Business Bureau. If there are no or limited results for a business, be wary. Consider shopping in stores with locations within the U.S., which would make them subject to U.S. consumer protection laws. In addition, read the vendors privacy and return policies.
  • Be sure to shop from secure websites. There are two quick and easy ways to determine if a website is secure. If the URL includes 'https://' the 's' indicates a secure site. In addition, most web browsers will display some security information about a website.
  • It is recommended that credit cards be used over debit cards. In the event something does go wrong, credit cards are protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act. Payments can be suspended if unauthorized charges are made. Shopping online using debit cards and e-checks leaves consumers vulnerable to bank fraud.
  • Provide only the minimal information needed by the company to complete the transaction. Remember that Social Security numbers are not needed when shopping online.

Everyday Deterrents

There are also several ways to help protect your identity in everyday life.

  • From bank and credit card statements to the never-ending pile of credit card solicitation letters, never dispose of these documents without first shredding the information. This prevents dumpster divers from gaining access to your information.
  • Instead of signing your credit or debit card, write 'See Photo ID.' This prompts the cashier to verify the name on the card with your ID.
  • Be diligent about checking your banking/credit card statements and your credit report. Look for obvious discrepancies and contact the appropriate agencies to work on resolving them.
  • Although it may seem like a good idea to have your driver's license or phone number pre-printed on your bank checks, it provides identifiable information to anyone who sees the check.
  • If something just doesn't seem right, it probably isn't. Keep alert for individuals watching as you enter your PIN while using an ATM machine or debit card. Steer clear of stores and websites with less than stellar reputations for security.

These tips may not guarantee that your identity will never be stolen, but they will hopefully reduce the risk. Education is the key. Knowing the steps to help deter the thieves will make you a less likely target.

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