Every year, millions of individuals and families are the victim of identity theft or credit card fraud. USA.gov says identity (ID) theft is a crime where a thief steals your personal information like your Social Security number or full name to commit fraud. They might apply for credit, file taxes, or even get medical treatment using your information. The best approach is to be proactive and learn how to protect your family from identity theft in the first place.
When your identity is breached, you may lose your credit rating and invest a lot of time and money trying to restore your good name. And the scariest part is that many victims do not even know what has happened until it’s too late. You may not learn about the occurrence until you yourself are denied credit or pull your annual credit report and see incorrect information – like a collection – on your file.
Forms of Identify Theft
Identity theft can happen to anyone in the family, especially children nowadays since they are such easy targets. There are a few forms of identity theft you should be aware of:
- Child ID theft – Children’s IDs are vulnerable because the theft may go undetected for many years. By the time they are adults, the damage has already been done to their identities.
- Tax ID theft – A thief uses your Social Security number to falsely file tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service or state government.
- Medical ID theft – This form of ID theft happens when someone steals your personal information, such as your Medicare ID or health insurance member number to get medical services or to issue fraudulent billing to your health insurance provider.
- Senior ID theft – ID theft schemes that target seniors. Seniors are vulnerable to ID theft because they are in more frequent contact with medical professionals who get their medical insurance information, or caregivers and staff at long-term care facilities that have access to personal information or financial documents.
- Social ID theft – A thief uses your name, photos, and other personal information to create a phony account on a social media platform.
Use this guide as a way to be proactive, safeguard your family’s personal information, and protect your family from identity theft.
How Can Personal Information be Compromised?
The three ways your personal information can be compromised:
- Dumpster divers search your trash for personal data.
- Hostile computer viruses gain access to passwords, usernames and account numbers.
- Old-fashioned thieves swipe gadgets stocked with sensitive information.
How to Protect Your Family From Identity Theft
Destroy Obsolete Documents
Too often we have documents laying around that are really past their time. Go through your old documents that contain personal information. Destroy anything that’s no longer needed, and make a plan to safely store the rest. You may want to invest in a durable fireproof safe. Oftentimes, burglars steal important documents in addition to material possessions. Keep your documents safely store and out of sight.
Memorize Important Information
When Social Security Numbers were developed more than 75 years ago, they were not intended to be secure. Nowadays, however, so much of our identity is attached to the SSN that it’s critical to keep this piece of personal information safe for everyone in the family. I remember when I was in high school and my mother insisted that I memorize my SSN. I didn’t know why then, but now I’m so glad I formed this habit of memorizing important personal information at a young age.
Another number that you’ll want to memorize is your driver’s license. Although you need to carry your driver’s license with you wherever you go, it’s best to keep your social security card in a safe and secure place, and only pull it out when absolutely necessary.
In the past, we didn’t really have to worry about what we shared with others. Nowadays, however, with social media being such an open opportunity for identity thieves, it’s best to limit the amount of information you “post” online. A status update containing a few key elements may be all an identity theft needs to swoop in and go to work.
Having a platform where you can share and connect with friends (and strangers) all over the world doesn’t mean that you have to post your heart out. The information you post online could easily be used as password recovery to gain access to your accounts or steal your identity.
It’s best to leave these out of your status updates. Here are some examples:
- City you grew up in
- Your mother’s maiden name
- The name of your first pet
- Your favorite artist
These and other “innocent” pieces of information could be breadcrumbs to unlocking your identity for a thief.
Make sure that you know the privacy settings for your social media accounts. Keep the content private.
Know who you’re connected to. There are many fake Facebook pages online set up exclusively to scam people. Many of these link to phishing sites that attempt to get your personal information. When in doubt, don’t connect. Declining – and possibly blocking – any suspicious social media requests may save you a lot of headache down the road.
Be sure to put these practices in place, and to educate your children about social media.
Minimize Your Physical Mail
Nowadays, the less physical mail we receive, the better. Cutting down on how much mail you receive will not only reduce your clutter but lower the risk of your personal information being intercepted en route. Install a lock on your mailbox. Just a small padlock may be all you need to deter a thief. Another alternative is to rent a secure PO box and receive your important mail there.
For the physical mail that you do receive, be sure to shred any items containing your name and address. This might include bills, credit card statements, or other documents. Don’t just rip up the papers; shred them properly. Investing in a quality shredder for the home is a great idea here.
Opt for Electronic Bills (ebills)
You may want to choose electronic delivery of bills and statements, instead of paper, as these are easy targets for someone trying to steal your financial information and/or your identity. Opting into paperless bills is a smart move that will reduce the chance of an identity thief stealing your information.
Power Up Your Passwords
Be sure that everyone in the family knows how to create a complex password for all of their accounts. Use a combination of upper and lowercase, and special characters that fit the account’s criteria.
Be sure to change passwords frequently. If you have trouble keeping track of passwords, create an excel spreadsheet that is also password protected.
Get Safety Software
Protect your home computers, laptops, smartphones and tablets with an updated anti-virus and malware software. Choose one with a good reputation like. Here are a few to choose from:
All of these have good ratings and offer plans to protect multiple devices for the family.
Be sure to keep your devices safe and locked, especially when in public places. Set up a password for each device so only the owner can unlock it in the event it is lost or stolen.
You may consider downloading a GPS tracking app which allows the device to be located in the event it is lost or stolen. Also, there are apps that will remotely wipe the data including personal information like passwords.
Also be cautious of what apps you download to your devices. Check the app’s user ratings and reviews before you install it on your device. Also, look for apps from legitimate sources only and download apps from legitimate stores like the Google Play Store or iTunes.
Monitor Your Information Regularly
The best way to prevent identity theft is to be proactive. Monitor your credit report regularly. When you catch a compromise early, it’s much easier to tackle – rather than if a lot of time has passed by.
You’ll want to check your bank and credit card accounts regularly – possibly daily – for any unusual activities so you can act quickly if a breach has occurred.
Sign up for a credit monitoring service to alert you if there is any unauthorized use of your social security number.
Some credit monitoring tools are:
Consider placing a freeze on your credit. This means that no new lines of credit can be applied for or opened under your name. If you do need to apply for credit, you can unfreeze your credit for a small fee.
Being proactive is the key. Even if you haven’t been victimized by an identity theft, it’s a good idea to pull a free copy of your credit report once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com. If you spot a problem like an unknown credit card, unfamiliar lines of credit, or other debt or collection, you’ll want to start the dispute process right away.
Review Your Explanation of Benefits (EOB)
Be sure to review your explanation of benefits from your insurance company. Be sure that the medical claims filed are indeed for the right member and the procedure(s) that were rendered. If you spot an error or something suspicious, be sure to contact your insurance company and/or the provider to get it investigated and corrected.
Connect to public WiFi networks with caution. When you do connect, don’t submit personal information over the web. Avoid shopping, banking, or other transactions that require your personally identifiable information or financial information. Save these transactions for your personal secure network at home.
Practice Email Safety
Email scams are very popular. Despite your spam filter, you may still find bogus, spammy, or phishing emails showing up in your inbox from time to time. Know what to look for and do not open or click on any of these suspicious emails. Many of them will tell you they need to “verify” your information. Never enter your personally identifiable information over the web unless you are absolutely sure that you are on legitimate sites.
Educate Your Kids About Identity Theft
It’s never too early to teach children how to keep their identity safe. Kids are a prime target for identity thieves. Their identities can be easily compromised with fake credit card accounts, loans, or even medical care in their name. And some of these infractions will go undetected for years since it’s rare for kids’ credit to be pulled. High schoolers and college students are at great risk.
It’s important that everyone in the family knows the dangers of identity theft and why it’s so important to prevent it. Although some of these were discussed above, here are some key tips to discuss with the kids:
- Keep your devices close or locked up safely.
- Password protect devices and disable auto-login for email and bank information.
- Only download well-known, legitimate apps to devices. When in doubt, don’t download.
- Beware of what is shared online. Kids may not realize that sharing innocent information online could give identity thieves what they need to access their personal accounts.
- Don’t do quizzes or games that ask for information. Many of these are just a way for identity thieves to get personally identifiable information like date of birth; place of birth; siblings’ names; name of school; favorite artists, songs, or colors; name of bank; or other information that – when put together – give all the pieces for an identity thief.
Being a healthy family these days goes beyond eating nutritious meals, keeping everyone active, and managing stress in our daily lives. It’s important to also address our financial and social health and well-being. This means that keeping your family’s personal information safe is a necessity. Knowing how to protect your family from identity theft is just par for the course in our modern times. Having a smart identity protection plan needs to be a standard part of your family’s overall plan for a healthy lifestyle.
As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has counseled hundreds of families, I’ve seen first-hand how damaging identity theft and other crimes can be for an everyday family. Put a few (or all) of these measures in place so everyone in the family can have peace of mind and avoid being the victim of identity theft.
If you are the unfortunate victim of identity theft, in addition to reporting the incident to your bank or the creditor, report the incident to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) online at IdentityTheft.gov or by phone at 1-877-438-4338.
The information in this article was current as of the writing.
Alicia Hyatte is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Family Wellness Advocate, Health Educator, and a Diabetes Prevention Lifestyle Coach. She helps parents to build healthier habits and routines to better balance home and work life. Her website, WholeFamilyLiving.com, provides motivation and simple strategies for handling everyday challenges like managing stress, being active, eating healthier, losing weight, and more. Alicia is a beach lover and gardening geek in her spare time.