You’ve probably seen the ads: some creepy guy with a ski mask in front of a computer using YOUR personal information to buy God-knows-what. I’m not going to lie: it’s a scary thought to me too. But I try my best to take the fear-mongering with a bit of salt. You see, identity theft protection has become a big business by essentially selling fear. I’m not saying identity theft isn’t a real problem or that the companies that sell “protection” don’t provide *any* value, but I am saying that a lot of people feel like they need to pay for identity theft protection when they would probably be better off just doing a few simple things themselves. And these things are all cheap or free.
Step 1: Check your free credit report at least once a year
By checking your credit report, you can see if anyone has taken out any new lines of credit that you didn’t authorize. You can also see who has been requesting your credit history. The U.S. Government requires that all the three major credit bureaus give you one free report every year (so you can check it three times a year for free). The place to start is annualcreditreport.com – I know the URL sounds like a scam, but I promise, it’s not. Just read the reviews. Oh, and don’t let those sneaky credit bureaus try to sell you anything you don’t want while you’re getting your report. Your report should be 100% free.
Step 2: Get a security freeze
Another way to stop identity thieves from taking out new lines of credit in your name is to lock access to your credit report, which is known as a “security freeze”. Each state has their own rules, but thanks to Consumer Reports, all the information exists in one easy place. Depending on how old you are and your state, you may have to pay a small one-time fee of around $10, which seems like a bargain compared to paying hundreds for identity theft protection. The only downside of locking your credit report is that if you need to apply for a new line of credit, you will need to unlock it. But that’s not hard to do either. So if you’re worried about identity theft, a security freeze is the way to go.
Step 3: Update your operating system, browser and anti-virus software
I don’t mean to go out and pay for Windows 2020 or anything crazy like that. Just make sure you have all the latest security updates for your operating system and make sure your browser is up to date as well. This prevents would-be hackers from creating software that can infiltrate security weaknesses on your computer to steal your identity. As for anti-virus software, it’s important to run it regularly and keep it up to date as well. And you also don’t need to spend money here either—there are plenty of good free options including Avast, AVG and Malwarebytes.
Step 4: Implement secure passwords
You’ve probably heard this before: never use weak passwords like birthdays, common words, your mother’s maiden name or the last four digits of your social security number. These are all easy to guess for identity thieves. Instead, use complicated passwords that are not publicly available and include a mixture of letters, numbers and special characters (e.g., “?”, “!”, “#”, etc.). For critical accounts, use a unique password. Keep ‘em guessing.
Step 5: Stay one step ahead of the scams
This one is easier said than done. We’re all susceptible to scams, but we can protect ourselves by being diligent. We all know this but: don’t give out personal information online, on the phone or even in person unless you know exactly who you’re working with and where your information is going. Research unfamiliar websites on Sitejabber and research unfamiliar local businesses through your local Better Business Bureau. And watch out for phishing.
Bonus: The paid “identity theft protection” services
Everyone and their mother is now selling identity theft protection. It started with LifeLock, moved on to the credit bureaus like Experian and now American Express and your local bank probably sells a version as well. Most of these services cost upwards of $100/year and provide “credit monitoring” services so they alert you if someone tries to open a new line of credit in your name. Now if you recall from above you can essentially do this yourself and prevent new lines of credit from being taken out, for little or no cost. However, if you want someone to do this for you, this could be a reason to buy identity theft protection. Also, if you do get your identity stolen and you want someone to walk you through what to do next—by the way here is a free walk-through from the Federal Trade Commission—identity theft protection companies can sometimes be helpful in going through the process with you. The bottom line is: we think the best defense against identity theft involves free or cheap things you can do yourself. The protection services can make things a little easier for you, but if it were up to us, we’d rather put our hard earned cash toward a nice long vacation. But don’t believe us, both the New York Times and Consumer Reports have chimed-in on this debate as well. Stay safe out there.
Have other tips to prevent identity theft? Let us know in the comments.