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How to protect yourself from identity theft

© / Dave Pilibosian © / Dave Pilibosian

By Andrew Housser

February 7 is Safer Internet Day, so this month is the perfect time to learn how to protect yourself from identity theft. Take these steps to guard your personal information online.

Review your credit record every year. You can get one free copy of your credit reports every year. Visit Annual Credit Report, or call 877-322-8228 (toll-free), to request reports from all three credit bureaus. You also can visit the website for each bureau at TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. As you review each report, watch for errors, including misspellings of your name, incorrect addresses or unfamiliar credit accounts. Follow the directions provided by each credit bureau to correct any errors.

Use secure websites. Google and other major Internet companies are strongly encouraging all website providers to improve their security. A security protocol called HTTPS encrypts most information about the website user. This protects your identity and make the site you are using secure. There are two ways to tell if a website uses this security protocol. One is that the website address will begin with an HTTPS instead of HTTP. The other is a green padlock symbol in the address bar (most browsers). If you do not see these security indicators, be extremely cautious about sharing your personal information.

Guard personal information. Do not provide personal details to anyone who calls or emails you. Instead, reach financial service companies by logging on to a secure website, or by calling the number on your credit card or statement. Shred documents that include personal information, including unsolicited credit offers. Do not carry your Social Security card in your wallet or purse, and do not carry your personal identification numbers (PINs) with you. Set up electronic delivery for your bills so that no one can steal them – and the personal information they contain – from your mailbox.

Create challenging passwords. Online passwords should be a mix of letters, numbers and symbols. Skip ones that are easy to guess, like birth dates or a child’s name. Change your passwords frequently. You can simplify managing passwords by signing up for a secure password management service such as LastPass or Dashlane.

Beware of skimming. Skimming is a process by which a criminal steals credit card information with an electronic device, or makes a copy to use later. Look closely at ATMs and freestanding credit card machines (such as those at gas stations) before you use them. If they look questionable, take a pass. Do not leave an open tab at a bar or restaurant with a credit card. Always read your credit card statements closely to check for charges you did not make.

Watch out for public Wi-Fi. It often is easy to log onto Wi-Fi at coffee shops, restaurants, schools, libraries and other places. The problem is that hackers and criminals can log on, too. To help safeguard your information, make sure your device does not automatically join Wi-Fi networks. Be sure to use secure sites, as noted above. Avoid conducting financial transactions over public Wi-Fi. You might consider purchasing a paid virtual private network (VPN). For about $10 a month, you can ensure everything you do is secure.

Be careful about how much you share on social media.A thief armed with your birth date, city, high school and the names of your pets and children might be able to guess passwords or even pose as you. Do not share vacation dates publicly ahead of time. If you do, you could be vulnerable to burglary at your home while you are gone. Scammers also can try to steal money from worried friends and relatives. If you use social media, use it prudently.

If you do become a victim of identity theft, fight back. The U.S. government provides a useful guide to recovering from identity theft. The guide can help you secure your information, stop fraudulent charges and notify stores and credit card companies. 

Andrew Housser is a co-founder and CEO of, a free one-stop online portal where consumers can educate themselves about personal finance issues and compare financial products and services. He also is co-CEO of Freedom Financial Network, LLC providing comprehensive consumer credit advocacy and debt relief services. Housser holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford University and Bachelor of Arts degree from Dartmouth College.
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