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How to Self Monitor Your Identity

How to Self Monitor Your Identity
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This article was originally posted on The Simple Dollar:

The best identity theft protection services aren’t cheap. They are going to cost a couple hundred bucks a year — and most of us (hopefully!) won’t ever even use the features that make them so appealing. Just like a monitored home security system, you’re paying for peace of mind as much as the service itself.

Just like DIY home security is possible, DIY identity theft monitoring can be effective and save you money. You need to know what to look for, need to be looking regularly, and you need to be prepared to untangle any damage completely on your own. As Minniti points out, “For the most part, people don’t have the discipline to self-monitor; they forget about it. They don’t do it on a regular basis, and that’s where a service can come in handy.” Even so, incorporating some basic steps into your routine can help you feel more secure:

Check all three of your credit reports every year.

All Americans are guaranteed access to their credit reports once a year; those reports show all of the open accounts that are associated with your name. Setting a yearly calendar reminder is a good way to stay on top of pulling them regularly, and staggering them throughout the year will help compensate for the coverage you’d get with a service, which typically pulls monthly or quarterly reports.

If you do suspect some sort of fraud (say your wallet was stolen or you’ve been notified of some sort of security breach), place a 90-day alert on your credit files and get the free report that comes with it. These alerts will ensure a business will verify your identity before issuing new credit in your name. You can renew the alert every 90 days to make sure you’re safe in the long term.

Consider placing a freeze on those reports too.

If you’re not planning on doing anything that will require an inquiry on your credit anytime soon — applying for credit cards or loans, signing a new lease, opening a new bank account, etc. — it might be a good idea to freeze your reports.

One of the best things people can do to protect themselves is to put a credit freeze on their credit reports. Steve J. Weisman Author of Identity Theft Alert Founder,

To do this, call each credit bureau and your banks — it’s a bit time-consuming and will cost around $10 per freeze (and another $10 per unfreeze), but it leaves no room for funny business with your finances: Consumers with a credit freeze in place must be contacted anytime there’s an inquiry on their credit. This is also a good protective step for senior citizens, children, and dependent adults.

Actually read all your mail.

Examine your health insurance statements when they arrive to see if you’ve been charged for an appointment or procedure you didn’t receive. Take note if you’ve stopped receiving notifications (either paper or electronic) from your banks, utilities, loan providers, or credit card companies: Identity thieves will most often file for a change of address if they have access to your financials to keep you out of the loop.

Likewise, if you get any password-reset emails, don’t ignore them off-hand; a notice might mean somebody has been trying to log into your accounts.

Run a background check on yourself.

While most of us aren’t able to self-monitor black market sites that traffic identities and financial information, background checks are typically free and will highlight any erroneous charges. If you find some and are going it alone, you’ll have to contact the authorities to dispute them.

Look into identity theft insurance.

It acts the same way as the insurance provided by an identity theft protection service — if you spend money recovering your identity, insurance will cover it. Your home and renters insurance policies might already include this as an add-on option; likewise, some employers add it to their benefits bundle.

Don’t Be a Target

Identity theft is a tricky crime to predict: Wealthy individuals with lots of accounts aren’t necessarily targeted more often than someone with, say, a low checking account balance or a dinged-up credit score. And, Weisman explains, “As technology improves, the problems with identity theft will, unfortunately, also increase.” Levin agrees, “The reality is that everywhere you go, everything you do is being tracked, gathered, stored, disseminated. With all the things out there collecting our data, we have to focus on what I call the 3 M’s: Minimize the risk of exposure, Monitor accounts, and Manage the damage.”

The steps for prevention are all pretty obvious and you’ve likely heard some version of them before. But they’re worth a reminder — especially if you’re not already following the advice.

  • Be extra careful with physical documents that contain sensitive information. “The least amount of information you can carry, you should,” says Minniti. That personal information includes your Social Security card, medical ID cards, credit card statements, bank account numbers, tax documents — even your driver’s license. Don’t carry them unless you have to and make them difficult to find in your home too.
  • Use challenging passwords. Don’t use personal information like names, birthdates, and addresses as passwords. $ecuR!tY!! is a much more complicated password than security. And remember: If you can Google your name and find out your high school mascot, your mom’s maiden name, or the street you grew up on, those don’t make great “Forgot your password?” prompts.
  • Don’t click on mystery links. If it’s a brand-new email notification your bank has never sent before, proceed with caution.
  • Never authenticate yourself to anybody who contacts you. “Theoretically, they know who you are. That’s why they’re contacting you,” says Levin. You shouldn’t need to, say, rattle off the last four digits of your SSN to anyone who’s calling you.
  • Get to know your smartphone’s security features. “Phones are data storage devices, not just communication devices,” Levin explains. “Have a complex PIN number. Have it shut off faster. Opt in to remote data wiping.” Apple iPhones equipped with Find My iPhone can remotely wipe all data off of a stolen phone, and Google Android phones with Android Lost perform a similar function. Back your phone up regularly so that you can wipe without remorse!


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