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    Identity Theft: MINIMIZE YOUR RISK

    Keep Personal Information Secure

    • Place passwords on your credit card, bank and phone accounts. Avoid using easily available information like your motherís maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers. When opening new accounts, you may find that many businesses still have a line on their applications for your motherís maiden name. Use a password instead.

    • Secure personal information in your home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help or are having service work done in your home.

    • Ask about information security procedures in your workplace. Find out who has access to your personal information and verify that records are kept in a secure location. Ask about the disposal procedures for those records as well.

    Maintaining Vigilance

    • Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus once a year. By checking your report on a regular basis you can catch mistakes and fraud before they wreak havoc on your personal finances. Donít underestimate the importance of this step. One of the most common ways that consumers find out that theyíre victims of identity theft is when they try to make a major purchase, like a house or a car. The deal can be lost or delayed while the credit report mess is straightened out. Knowing whatís in your credit report allows you to fix problems before they jeopardize a major financial transaction.

    • Donít give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless youíve initiated the contact or are sure you know who youíre dealing with. Identity thieves may pose as representatives of banks, Internet service providers (ISPs) and even government agencies to get you to reveal your SSN, motherís maiden name, account numbers and other identifying information. Before you share any personal information, confirm that you are dealing with a legitimate organization. You can check the organizationís website as many companies post scam alerts when their name is used improperly, or you can call customer service using the number listed on your account statement or in the telephone book.

    • Guard your mail and trash from theft.

      • Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office, rather than in an unsecured mailbox. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox. If youíre planning to be away from home and canít pick up your mail, call the U.S. Postal Service at 1-800-275-8777 to request a vacation hold. The Postal Service will hold your mail at your local post office until you can pick it up or are home to receive it.

      • To thwart an identity thief who may pick through your trash or recycling bins to capture your personal information, tear or shred your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, expired charge cards that youíre discarding, and credit offers you get in the mail.

    • Before revealing any personally identifying information (for example, on an application), find out how it will be used and secured, and whether it will be shared with others. Ask if you have a choice about the use of your information. Can you choose to have it kept confidential?

    • Donít carry your SSN card; leave it in a secure place.

    • Give your SSN only when absolutely necessary. Ask to use other types of identifiers when possible. If your state uses your SSN as your driverís license number, ask to substitute another number.

    • Carry only the identification information and the number of credit and debit cards that youíll actually need.

    • Pay attention to your billing cycles. Follow up with creditors if your bills donít arrive on time. A missing credit card bill could mean an identity thief has taken over your account and changed your billing address to cover his tracks.

    • Be wary of promotional scams. Identity thieves may use phony offers to get you to give them your personal information.

    • Keep your purse or wallet in a safe place at work.

    A Special Word About Social Security Numbers

    Your employer and financial institution will likely need your SSN for wage and tax reporting purposes. Other businesses may ask you for your SSN to do a credit check, like when you apply for a loan, rent an apartment, or sign up for utilities. Sometimes, however, they simply want your SSN for general record keeping. You donít have to give a business your SSN just because they ask for it. If someone asks for your SSN, ask the following questions:

    Why do you need my SSN?
    How will my SSN be used?
    What law requires me to give you my SSN?
    What will happen if I donít give you my SSN?

    Sometimes a business may not provide you with the service or benefit youíre seeking if you donít provide your SSN. Getting answers to these questions will help you decide whether you want to share your SSN with the business. Remember Ė the decision is yours.

    The Doors and Windows Are Locked, but . . .

    You may be careful about locking your doors and windows, and keeping your personal papers in a secure place. But, depending on what you use your personal computer for, an identity thief may not need to set foot in your house to steal your personal information. SSNs, financial records, tax returns, birth dates, and bank account numbers may be stored in your computer Ė a goldmine to an identity thief. The following tips can help you keep your computer and your personal information safe.

    • Update your virus protection software regularly, or when a new virus alert is announced. Computer viruses can have a variety of damaging effects, including introducing program code that causes your computer to send out files or other stored information. Be on the alert for security repairs and patches that you can download from your operating systemís website.

    • Do not download files sent to you by strangers or click on hyperlinks from people you donít know. Opening a file could expose your system to a computer virus or a program that could hijack your modem.

    • Use a firewall program, especially if you use a high-speed Internet connection like cable, DSL or T-1, which leaves your computer connected to the Internet 24 hours a day. The firewall program will allow you to stop uninvited guests from accessing your computer. Without it, hackers can take over your computer and access your personal information stored on it or use it to commit other crimes.

    • Use a secure browser Ė software that encrypts or scrambles information you send over the Internet Ė to guard the security of your online transactions. Be sure your browser has the most up-to-date encryption capabilities by using the latest version available from the manufacturer. You also can download some browsers for free over the Internet. When submitting information, look for the ďlockĒ icon on the browserís status bar to be sure your information is secure during transmission.

    • Try not to store financial information on your laptop unless absolutely necessary. If you do, use a strong password Ė a combination of letters (upper and lowers case), numbers and symbols. Donít use an automatic log-in feature which saves your user name and password so you donít have to enter them each time you log-in or enter a site. And always log off when youíre finished. That way, if your laptop gets stolen, itís harder for the thief to access your personal information.

    • Before you dispose of a computer, delete personal information. Deleting files using the keyboard or mouse commands may not be enough because the files may stay on the computerís hard drive, where they may be easily retrieved. Use a ďwipeĒ utility program to overwrite the entire hard drive. It makes the files unrecoverable. For more information, see Clearing Information From Your Computerís Hard Drive ( from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

    • Look for website privacy policies. They answer questions about maintaining accuracy, access, security, and control of personal information collected by the site, as well as how information will be used, and whether it will be provided to third parties. If you donít see a privacy policy, consider surfing elsewhere.

    For more information, see Site-Seeing on the Internet: A Travelerís Guide to Cyberspace from the FTC at

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