Identity theft ranks third on the Federal Trade Commission’s 2016 summary of consumer complaints, behind debt collection and imposter scams.1 And in light of customer data breaches that have struck mainstream retailers even the United States Postal Service in recent years, it’s more important than ever to be informed about the ways you can protect your identity. Here are a few simple steps you can take to reduce your risk of identity theft.

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1. Don’t Wait to Find out If You’ve Been Impacted by a Breach

If you suspect that your sensitive information has been compromised, be proactive about contacting your financial institution and credit card issuers to report your concerns. They will determine next steps, which may include reissuing cards and/or account numbers, and can advise if you should establish new PIN numbers, passwords and security codes.

2. Take Advantage of Credit Monitoring

If your personal data was breached and the company responsible for the breach offers free credit monitoring, you should take advantage of the service. It may notify you of both legitimate and potentially fraudulent activity (like someone trying to open an account in your name).

If you suspect your data has been breached, you may also contact one of the three major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and Transunion), and request a free initial fraud alert for 90 days. (You can extend the service as well, for a fee.) This is essentially an extra layer of peace of mind that will alert you if someone other than a designated third party tries to access your credit report and can make it more difficult for someone else to open a new line of credit in your name.

3. Monitor Your Credit Reports Regularly

Though credit monitoring and fraud alerts will keep you informed about your credit report related activity, they require that you take action to prevent fraudulent activity from progressing, and won’t necessarily prevent theft on an existing account. If you know your data was compromised and/or are concerned that a third party may have your social security number, you can also consider initiating a credit freeze with the three major credit bureaus. 

With a credit freeze activated, new creditors are not able to access your credit report, which is typically a condition of opening a new credit account. While a freeze won’t negatively impact your credit score or prevent you from accessing your own credit report, it may take longer to secure new loans or credit lines because to do so, you’ll need to contact each of the three major credit bureaus to request the freeze be temporarily removed. 2

4. Be Mindful of How Much Information You Provide and to Whom

Maiden names, birthdays, zip codes and even the financial institutions you use can be easy to locate on social media if your account privacy settings aren’t secure. Be protective of the information you share at the doctor’s office, with retailers and even in a restaurant, even if it means challenging a policy, or appearing “difficult.” (If a restaurant or merchant’s credit card processing system is temporarily “down,” for example, do not allow a member of the staff to write your credit card information on a piece of paper for later processing.)

If a caller claims to be from your financial institution, your employer’s human resource department or even the Internal Revenue Service, do not give any information.

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