Identity theft is real and it happens to millions of people every year. It can happen to you. Modern technology has made it easier than ever for your personal financial information to be shared. Service members, in particular, are vulnerable to identity theft and credit fraud because of their steady income and frequent military deployments.
Safeguard your personal information
It can take months — or even years — to untangle the financial mess if someone steals your identity. These tips will help you safeguard your personal information and stop identity thieves before they strike:
1. Monitor your credit. You're eligible for a free credit report each year. Suspicious activity on your credit report could be a sign of identity theft.
2. Put an active-duty alert on your credit report. If you're a deploying service member and don't plan to seek new credit while deployed, an active-duty alert will require creditors take steps to verify your identity before granting credit in your name.
3. Shop on sites that use secure technology. This will help keep your credit card information from falling into the wrong hands. A lock icon on the status bar of your internet browser means your information is safe when it's being transmitted.
4. Install anti-virus, anti-spyware software on all your devices. Update these protections regularly.
5. Don't give out personal information online (or over the phone, for that matter) unless you initiated the contact.
6. Keep your passwords private and change them regularly. Be sure you use strong passwords (combinations of numbers, letters and symbols) on your laptop and other devices, as well as on your banking and credit card accounts.
7. Don't overshare on social media. Too much information can make it easy for thieves to answer security questions on your accounts. Never post your full name, Social Security number, address, phone number or account numbers on social media or other publicly accessible sites.
8. Don't open phishing emails. Opening a file from someone you don't know could expose your computer to a virus meant to capture the passwords and other personal information stored on your computer.
9. Know your Wi-Fi. Try to avoid sending private information on a public network.
10. Keep your purse or wallet secure. Never leave it in the car, and keep your wallet or purse in a locked drawer or other safe place at work.
11. Consult with your legal assistance office before granting a power of attorney. The staff there can help you understand the legal issues associated with granting a friend or family member power of attorney. Installation legal assistance offices offer legal services at no cost to service members and their families.
12. Limit what you carry. Take only what you need when you go out. Leave your Social Security card at home and don't carry more credit cards than you really need.
13. Ask before sharing. If a business or other organization asks for personal information, ask why they need it, how they will safeguard it and what will happen if you don't share.
14. Shred receipts, credit card offers, bank statements, military records and other papers with identifying information.
15. Delete personal information from computers or phones when you get rid of them. Read the owner's manual or check with your service provider for the best ways to do that.
If you think someone is using your personal information, take action immediately. Call your local police first in the event your information has been compromised, and then visit the Federal Trade Commission's Identity Theft page for more information on how to report a crime.
Repairing the damage caused by identity theft can cost a lot in terms of time, money and piece of mind. Take these steps now to keep your financial information from falling into the wrong hands.