7 tips to protect yourself from identity theft

Millions of people are affected each year by identity theft, whether by stolen credit card numbers or fraudulent accounts. It’s big business for identity thieves—tens of billions of dollars are stolen each year as a result.

And identity theft is partially fueled by some of the thousands of data breaches that occur each year. While you can’t prevent a breach from exposing your private information, there are ways to reduce the risks of fraud or identity theft—and minimize its impact. 

Key takeaways

  • Identity theft is when someone steals your personal information to commit fraud.
  • Identity theft affects millions of people every year and causes billions of dollars in financial losses.
  • You can take steps to protect yourself from identity theft, like being safe online, verifying sources before giving out personal information and securing documents that have your Social Security number on them.
  • You can also look for warning signs of identity theft by monitoring your credit report with AnnualCreditReport.com or credit monitoring services like CreditWise from Capital One.

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What is identity theft?

According to the Department of Justice, identity theft is when someone illegally obtains someone else’s personal information and uses it in some way that involves fraud or deception—usually for financial gain. Victims of identity theft may find that their information is used to:

  • Withdraw money from their accounts.
  • Open new accounts for loans or credit cards.
  • File taxes to get a refund that would be owed to the victim.
  • Get medical services that are charged to the victim and their insurance.
  • Give the police a false identity after an arrest.

The Federal Trade Commission reported it received fraud complaints from more than 2.8 million consumers in 2021. The total cost to those consumers? More than $5.8 billion.

How to protect yourself from identity theft

While identity theft happens to millions of people every year, it’s possible to reduce the chances of becoming a victim. Identity theft prevention can start by taking these simple steps to stay safe.

1. Keep yourself safe online

As our lives become more and more digitally connected, it’s important to learn how to keep your digital identity safe. Here’s how you can get started:

  • Avoid sharing personal information on social media. Social media can be used to gather personal details that can be used for identity theft. So be mindful of the information you’re sharing, and keep any personally identifiable information (PII)—like your full name, Social Security number, driver’s license number, bank account number, email address and passport number—off social media. And never share PII through messages, especially with people or companies you don’t know. 
  • Don’t access personal accounts over unsecured wireless networks. If you ever access your bank account over a public Wi-Fi network, like in a coffee shop or library, you may be putting yourself at risk. It’s probably best to not access sensitive information, such as your bank account, on a public Wi-Fi network—you never know who may be watching. Even your home Wi-Fi network can open you up to theft if left unsecured. So make sure your home Wi-Fi network is secure by requiring a password.
  • Protect your accounts with strong passwords and multifactor authentication. Weak or stolen passwords are a top cause of data theft. But they’re also one of the easiest things to improve. You can improve your password security by:
  1. Never using the same password across multiple accounts. 
  2. Using a password manager when possible.
  3. Keeping written passwords hidden.
  4. Not using common passwords for your accounts.

You can enhance the security of your accounts with multifactor authentication (MFA). MFA means adding secondary ways of verifying your identity in addition to your password. This may come in the form of a text to your phone, a fingerprint or face scan, or a prompt in an authentication app.

  • Check for spyware or malware on your devices. Antivirus software programs can be run to detect any malicious software that may be monitoring your activity without your permission.
  • Be smart when paying online. Shopping online? Only use third-party payment gateways you trust to make sure your purchases are secure. If you’re a Capital One customer, you can also take advantage of virtual card numbers to disguise your card number when paying online.

2. Don’t give out personal information to unverified sources

Whether it’s a suspicious phone call or a convincing-looking phishing email that asks you to click a link or download an attachment, always think twice before giving out any personal information. 

If an email sounds overly urgent, asking you to respond right away, that should be a red flag. Confirm the request first by calling a legitimate phone number or logging on to the legitimate site. If it’s a financial institution or credit card company, call them back using a phone number from your bill or your card.

3. Regularly review bills and account statements for unusual activity

Identity thieves often start small, with the idea you won’t notice charges or suspicious activity. Review your accounts online frequently and make sure you recognize all charges, checks and withdrawals. If a regular bill doesn’t arrive, call or log in directly to your account to make sure a thief hasn’t redirected your mail to another address.

Are you a Capital One customer? Keep track of spending in real time with instant purchase notifications through the Capital One Mobile app.

4. Protect your paper records, too

Your paper records, if not properly protected, can be another way for identity thieves to steal your personal information. You can help keep your physical records safe by:

  • Safeguarding important documents at home. Put them in a secure place, like a locked file cabinet or a safe.
  • Shredding anything you no longer need that has sensitive information, like paid bills, receipts or pre-approved credit card offers. 
  • Removing your Social Security number from anywhere it doesn’t need to be, like checks or bank statements. 
  • Not leaving outgoing mail (e.g., bill payments) in an unsecured mailbox. If you’re planning to be away from home, the U.S. Postal Service can hold your mail until you’re back.

5. Be aware of your surroundings when using your card

While online shopping has its own dangers, identity thieves can still try to get their hands on your data while you’re out shopping in person. You can help protect yourself by knowing about: 

  • Credit card skimmers. Whenever you’re using your physical card at a point-of-sale location—whether it’s an ATM or a gas station pump—use caution. Devices like credit card skimmers look like regular card terminals but can secretly harvest your data. 
  • Shoulder surfing. Someone watching over your shoulder can nab valuable information—such as your password, ATM PIN or card number—as you key it into your cellphone, laptop, ATM or PIN pad. 
  • Cellphone data capture. Be conscious of people standing nearby when you are making purchases or using an ATM. Thieves have been known to use their cellphones to monitor and steal information. 

6. Check your credit report regularly

At least once a year, make sure the information in your credit report is accurate and includes only accounts and activities that you’ve authorized. You can visit AnnualCreditReport.com to learn how to get free copies of your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus. A credit monitoring tool like CreditWise might also help.

And if you think you might be the victim of fraudulent activity, there are ways to report it.

7. Freeze your credit report if you find suspicious activity

If you find suspicious activity on your credit report, you can freeze your credit for free at any time. A credit freeze prevents others from opening new lines of credit and reduces how much access there is to your credit report. And it will last until you decide it’s safe to lift the freeze.

Identity theft protection in a nutshell

Monitoring your online habits, making sure any personal information requests are from a legitimate source and protecting your devices from malicious software are a few important ways to protect yourself from identity theft.

These are basic yet crucial tips to remember to keep data safe, but they’re just the beginning. To take a more active role in protecting yourself from identity theft, you can monitor your credit for free anytime with CreditWise. This can help you notice possible fraudulent activity.

You can also learn more about preventing identity theft. And if you’re a Capital One customer, learn how to report suspicious activity on your account.

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