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How to best protect your identity in the new year

two women with long brown hair who are identical twins look to the side
February 16, 2016

By Lynn Mucken, NerdWallet

The risk of identity theft is all around us. Whether you’re sharing your personal information at the doctor’s office, swiping your debit card at a big-box retailer or simply throwing away your bills without shredding them, it’s possible for your sensitive data to fall into the wrong hands.

Retailers and financial institutions do as much as they can to protect consumer’s data, but there are steps you can take to further protect yourself from identity theft such as: 

Keep your guard up when it comes to identity theft

Simple common sense goes a long way toward preventing identity theft. Carry only the information and cards you need in your wallet — leave the rest at home. Additionally, don’t freely give out your Social Security number. Instead, ask for other ways to prove your identity, like your driver’s license number or birthdate. 

You should also consider investing in a document shredder to dispose of credit card offers that arrive by mail, to quash the possibility of someone opening a card in your name. Don’t share your passwords, and when shopping online do so only on secure websites; you’ll know a website is secure if the web address starts with https://. 

Consider not sharing so many personal details on social media 

Details you put in your profile — your date of birth, hometown, spouse’s name — might elsewhere be answers to security questions that would let a crook gain access to your account. At the very least, keep an eye on your favorite social media site’s privacy settings, which can change suddenly and leave you more exposed than you thought.

Be on the lookout for so-called phishing scams

These are emails, texts and other messages meant to trick you into giving over sensitive personal or financial information. They might contain the right logo or, at a glance, seem to come from a valid email address. They might even appear to come from a family member or trusted friend. Still, beware. Does it seem weird that your daughter is writing, in a voice that doesn’t sound like her, to ask you to transfer some money? If a message seems at all suspicious, do not click on the links inside, as they might contain viruses or other malware that can be used to steal sensitive data from your computer. If you want to follow up, open a new browser window, go to your financial institution’s website and find out how to contact customer service.

Watch your credit card accounts for fraud (and get help doing it)

Monitoring your accounts regularly is a great way to spot unusual activity. You’re entitled to one free credit report from each of the three major credit-reporting bureaus yearly through AnnualCreditReport.com, but you may want to purchase your credit report more often to check for accounts you don’t recognize (you can do this directly from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). 

Financial institutions — Alliant included — will also monitor your accounts for fraudulent activity, but be sure to report any unauthorized activity that you notice as well.  

While the above ideas aren’t groundbreaking, they’re familiar recommendations for a reason. In short, they work. No one is immune from identity theft, but being vigilant definitely helps.