Keep your personal info on lockdown.
Roughly 17.6 million people — 7 percent of all consumers age 16 or older in the U.S. — experienced at least one incident of identity theft in 2014, according to the most recent data from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice.
When thieves obtain your personal information, like your Social Security number, they may be able to open a credit card in your name and rack up charges they don’t pay for, open a bank account and write bad checks, or take an auto loan out in your name to buy a new car and default on the payments — all of which can have a lasting impact.
In fact, 35 percent of victims said their ability to obtain credit was affected and 20 percent said it was harder to secure employment after having their identity stolen, according to research from the Identity Theft Resource Center.
If your Social Security number, debit and credit cards, and other info aren’t already on lockdown, take the following 8 steps to help avoid becoming an identity theft victim:
- Don’t carry personal info you don’t need: Identity thieves could potentially steal your wallet or purse (or items from them) and gain access to your personal information — which is why you should never carry anything with your social security number on it. Additionally, don’t write your account numbers, debit card PINs, or any other passwords on a piece of paper and keep it in your wallet. Only carry necessary identification, such as your driver’s license and essential credit cards. Leave your Social Security card, birth certificate, passport and other nonessential documents at home.
- Send bills safely: Prevent identity thieves from stealing bank account statements, credit card bills or other items from your mailbox by removing incoming mail as soon as possible. If you mail any checks, use a secure mailbox, instead of leaving envelopes containing checks unprotected outside your home. Paying bills online can also help prevent mail theft. USA.gov recommends asking your local post office to put your mail on hold if you plan to be out of town for more than a couple of days.
- Discard old documents safely: Shred credit card applications and any other items that contain personal information, which can help prevent them from being stolen from your trash. Additionally, if you’re purging your filing cabinet of financial or tax paperwork, be sure to discard them safely. If you don’t have your own shredder, you can find numerous free or low-cost services at local businesses, like office supply stores, as well as mobile shredding trucks and shredding kiosks.
- Keep personal information private: In some cases, identity thieves reach out to potential victims through the phone or email and request personal information. Tax-related identity theft, in fact, was the most common form reported to the Federal Trade Commission in 2015. The number of consumer complaints increased 50 percent and tax fraud was the highest contributor. The IRS advises only sharing your Social Security number when absolutely necessary — with a person or organization you’ve initiated contact with.
- Pick savvy passwords: User IDs and passwords should be confidential and hard to guess. Avoid common passwords like your mother’s maiden name that thieves may be able to research and find. It’s also important that you use unique passwords that you don’t use for any other account. That way, if your social media account is hacked, your banking password continues to remain safe.
- Review terms: Make sure you understand the protection your financial institution and credit card companies automatically provide you, and how they advise you stay safe, by checking out the security page on their websites. (BMO Harris, for example, clearly states that it will never contact customers to ask for their Social Security number, user ID, password or PIN via email or the phone.) Knowing how your bank or credit card company will and won’t reach out to you can help you avoid phishing schemes to get your personal information, typically considered to be an online form of identity theft.
- Keep an eye out for issues: Review your financial statements on a regular basis and question any transactions that look unfamiliar. If a statement is late, contact your financial institution. It’s also a good idea to check multiple credit reports at least once a year for incorrect information, unknown accounts or addresses, or an odd number of inquiries. You can get a free copy every 12 months from each of the national credit reporting companies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — at annualcreditreport.com. If anything looks odd, contact the agency’s fraud hotline as soon as possible. You can also sign up for a consumer fraud alert that will require creditors to contact you whenever a new account is opened in your name.
- Report missing cards ASAP: Notify financial institutions about any lost or stolen checks, debit or credit cards immediately. (To contact BMO Harris, call 1-888-340-2265 or stop by an office location during business hours to speak with a banker.)
If you discover you’ve been a victim of identity theft, you can follow the instructions on “What to do if your identity is stolen” from the Federal Trade Commission.
BMO Harris can also help. Find out tips on what to do first — and in the future — in the BMO Harris guide for dealing with identity theft and fraud.
BMO Harris Bank N.A. Member FDIC