Identity theft sucks. Hard. Ask anyone who’s experienced it; at best, they had to make phone calls, update bill-paying info, and change out a credit card or two after evildoers stole their info and bought some contraband goods at Costco. At worst, they’re embroiled in a never-ending fight to fix their destroyed credit and stave off bill collectors who expect them to pay the bills racked up by the assholes who stole their identity. So make no mistake: Whether someone is racking up hefty credit card bills, obtaining medical care, committing crimes, or leasing a car or apartment in your name, their actions can ruin your finances and, as a result, feel like it’s ruined your life.
The worst part about identity theft is that it’s getting, uh, worse. The National Taxpayer Advocate, an independent branch of the IRS, cited a 650 percent rise in the number of identity theft cases since 2008 in its annual report to Congress. To help protect yourself and your identity without paying a monthly fee for services like Identity Guard, there are a handful of simple steps you can take that’ll go a long way toward preventing identity theft.
#1. Shred Stuff Containing Personal Info
Identity thieves really do look through trash for credit card statements, bills, and other documents containing your personal information. Before you toss those papers into the trash or recycling bin, feed them to an electronic shredder, rip them up into a few different pieces, or feed them to your pet goat.
#2. Call 888-5-OPTOUT
Know all of those annoying pre-approved credit card offers you throw out without thinking twice about them? Identity thieves love to swipe those, use them to open credit cards in your name, and then go on fabulous shopping sprees at Targets up and down the Florida panhandle. (It’s easier to do than you think.) Operators at 888-5-OPTOUT are standing by to give you the chance to opt out of receiving those offers. It’s free … though sadly, the operators don’t talk in sexy voices.
#3. Pick Up Your Checks At The Bank
Smart identity thieves will stalk a neighborhood before making a move, checking the mail for bills, checks, or other info with your personal info comes in the mail. Opt to have whatever statements you can sent to you via email. For checks, request picking them up at the bank to eliminate the possibility that someone else might walk away with them.
#4. Check Bank and Credit Card Statements Regularly
Smart thieves don’t buy new cars with your stolen credit card info. They make much smaller purchases, ones that you might not even spot if you don’t take a close look at your statements. Although it may sting to see how much cash you dropped when you were blacked out at Shakes O’Houlihan’s on Saturday night, you should still get in the habit of checking your statements on a monthly basis at the very least.
#5. Only Carry The Essentials
If you own multiple credit cards, you don’t need to bring every single one of them with you wherever you go. All men should carry cash, so do that, and pack one credit card (two if one of them is an AmEx, since some merchants don’t accept it). Also, for Christ’s sake, leave your Social Security card at home — you never, ever need it, and losing it can result in big problems.
#6. Use Multiple Passwords
Yahoo!, LinkedIn, and Last.fm all had password breaches last year. If your passwords are all the same for your online bank, credit card, and email accounts, you’re leaving yourself extremely vulnerable. So stagger your passwords and keep them organized by jotting them down in a book that’s stashed in a safe place. And do yourself a favor — put some effort into your password. Using things like “password,” “password1,” “123456,” “welcome,” “ninja,” “mustang,” and “jesus” — all of which made SplashData’s annual list of worst passwords in 2012 — is like begging a hacker to steal your shit.
#7. Don’t Use a Debit Card at a Gas Station
Gas stations are high-volume areas where people routinely whip out their debit cards and enter their pin without much security. If someone puts a skimming device that collects the info you input on the card slot it might be hours before someone notices — if anyone notice at all.