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A quarter of American consumers are currently using some kind of identity theft protection service, according to a new research report out late last month. That’s despite a big jump in ID theft: There were 12.5 percent more identity fraud victims in 2009 than in 2008.
Maybe it’s because many of those protection services cost money, or maybe it’s because Americans think common sense is enough to protect them. But the fact is, even a former Secret Service agent can have his identity stolen — check out our video on Stopping Identity Theft and see for yourself. As trite as this may sound, it can happen to anyone.
The new report, which comes from financial research group Javelin Strategy, features a scorecard that ranks protection services from more than a dozen companies, including credit agencies like TransUnion and Equifax, as well as popular independent protection companies like Debix, Lifelock, and TrustedID. A sample of the report is free, but the full report costs a whopping $2,000. So we’ll save you the money and tell you what they ranked “best-in-class overall” — IDEssentials from TrustedID. If you’re interested, it’ll run you $14.99 a month or $125 for a year.
But as the Federal Trade Commission points out, most of those “services” are things you can do yourself for free. Judge for yourself whether you can get free identity theft protection by doing it on your own:
1. Socialize without your Social
Unless you’re making a trip to a government or financial office, chances are you don’t need your Social Security card in your wallet. You also don’t need to give out your number every time someone asks for it – in many cases, it’s just a convenient but unnecessary way to verify your identity. Ask if you can provide some other ID instead, or at least find out what they’ll do with it. And when you see a box for your SSN in an online form, check for an asterisk to see if it’s required – it’s often optional.
2. Shred your junk mail and opt out of offers
Pre-approved credit card offers we get in the mail can be used against us. Identity thieves have no problem dumpster-diving if they can get a line of credit – in your name – out of the process. But they’ll be getting covered in rotten food and gunk for nothing if you invest in a paper shredder or cut up those documents yourself. Better yet, opt out of these types of offers so you don’t get them in the first place. Go to OptOutPreScreen.com, or call 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688) to have your name removed from direct marketing lists.
3. Actually read your credit card bills and bank statements
Many people throw these out as quickly as junk mail. But taking the time to look at the charges to your accounts could tip you off to ID theft and minimize the damage. Read your statements. Better yet, don’t wait for statements: Checking your accounts online is quick and easy – make it a habit.
4. Browse with care
Online identity theft is easier than ever, because people publicly share personal information on social networks, visit risky sites, and don’t use antivirus and firewall software. Check out our story 6 Tips For Going Underground Online, and read more advice about serious issues like phishing, malware, and internet security at the government- sponsored OnGuard Online.
5. Complicate your passwords
Some people use the same password for everything – others make them too simple. Try to get a mix of letters and non-consecutive numbers for the best protection. And avoid having one universal log-in, so that if one password gets hacked (or simply guessed), you don’t risk everything.
6. Use a virtual credit card
While you’re shopping online, you can protect your credit card number by using an alternate number along with other sophisticated security measures. Read about it in our story Safe Online Shopping With Virtual Credit Cards.
7. Get their ID first
ID thieves commonly pose as government agencies or customer service representatives from your bank, credit company, and other places of business. They’ll try to con you out of personal information you might ordinarily trust to those people. Minimize risk by asking questions and verifying their identity. You can check their phone number, address, or e-mail against your bills, statements, and their websites. Or simply contact the company yourself.
8. Sign up for annual credit reports and fraud alerts
Many of the companies who sell ID Theft simply put a fraud alert on your account – something you can do yourself for free in less than 3 minutes. A fraud alert ensures creditors will take extra steps to protect your identity before granting new credit. To read more about how that works, read our story on Free ID Theft Protection.
9. Freeze your credit
A more intense way to protect your credit from theft is with a freeze. This restricts new credit from being granted to anyone – including you – until you unfreeze it, which could take several days. The policy and fee for doing this varies by state, but you can learn more about state credit freeze rules at this page of the Consumers Union site. One catch is that it won’t block your file from people who already have access to it – just new requesters. Some states have other exceptions, too.
10. Know how to fight back
The Federal Trade Commission provides a detailed explanation of what steps to take to fight identity theft if you lose a card or discover fraud. Knowing what to do, what protections you’re entitled to, and how to act fast if you’re hit can save you from a lot of headaches and stress.
Free identity theft protection
So what do you think? Will you be signing up for your own DIY free identity theft protection plan? If so, let us know in the comments below.