In 2011, identity theft was up by 13 percent, with more than 11.6 million adults becoming victims, according to a report by Javelin Research. Social media and time spent on mobile devices have made sensitive personal information ever more available.
"The more information you share about yourself, your family and your friends, the more potential of it being used by bad actors," says Susan Grant, director of consumer protection with the Consumer Federation of America.
Because it's hard to know exactly where information gets compromised, adopt some of these practices to thwart would-be identity thieves.
- Don't be Social. That's your Social Security number, of course. With it, you can open accounts, establish credit and gain access to your bank, so guard it vigorously. Don't carry your Social Security card on you. And don't leave the number in plain sight, even in your home. Many cases of identity theft involve people known to the victim. "If you're dealing with a business like a doctor's office and they ask for your Social Security number, ask why it's necessary," suggests Grant. "Don't give it if it's not."
- Socialize wisely. Without realizing it, you may be posting a treasure trove of information that fraudsters could use to steal your identity. "Just because you're not tweeting your Social Security number, that doesn't mean you aren't posting personal information," says Nikki Junker, victim adviser with the Identity Theft Resource Center. Eliminate things like your date of birth, address, your mother's maiden name and your pets' names from your social media pages. These are often used in online security questions.
- A little privacy, please. In its survey of Facebook users, the Identity Theft Resource Center found that 14 percent of respondents didn't know the privacy settings on their profiles. An additional 16 percent did not have their profiles set to private. "After you set your privacy settings, go to your Facebook page as a public user to see what others can see," Junker advises. Better yet, don't divulge too much in these public forums.
- Password protection. It's not enough just to keep your password confidential. Use strong passwords with both letters and numerals and a combination of upper and lower case letters. And don't use the same passwords for financial institutions as you do for social networking. Those sites don't have the same level of security as banks. If thieves obtain your password there, they might try it at your bank.
Monitor frequently. Often, identity theft only comes to light when bill collectors come calling. Make it a habit to review bank and credit card statements carefully each month to catch anything amiss. Also, spend some time getting to know your credit report. That will tell you if any accounts have been opened in your name. You are entitled to one free credit report per year. A credit monitoring service can alert you to any suspicious activity. Alternately, you can put a security freeze on your credit records, says Grant. "You will need to lift the freeze when you are applying for credit or employment," she notes.