1. Protect your Social Security number, credit card and debit card numbers, PINs (personal identification numbers), passwords and other personal information. A thief can use these details to order checks or credit cards, apply for loans or otherwise commit fraud using your name.
Among the preventive measures you can take: Don’t provide financial and other personal information in response to an unsolicited phone call, fax, letter or e-mail—it could be from a fraud artist masquerading as a legitimate business person or government official. Be particularly cautious with your Social Security number (SSN). Keep bank and credit card statements, tax returns, checks and other sensitive documents in a safe place at home. Shred these documents before discarding them.
Also, choose PINs and passwords for your bank and Internet accounts that will be tough for someone else to figure out. Do not use your birth date or home address, for example.
2. Deal only with legitimate, reputable businesses. Try to do business with companies you already know or that have been recommended. Do your research before giving money or personal information to an unfamiliar merchant (or charity or any other organization).
3. Get key details in writing and thoroughly check them out before agreeing to anything. Do not rely on a sales person’s oral representations for a significant purchase or investment. Get as much written information as possible, including a contract, specifying cost information and your consumer rights.
4. Beware of “deals” requiring money up-front. “Congratulations, you’ve won a free vacation!” “Get rich quick—at no risk!” “We’ll fix your credit problems—fast.” Do these sound familiar? They’re likely to be schemes to trick you into sending money or providing bank account information in exchange for promises of goods or services that will never be delivered. Be skeptical of any offer that’s “free” or otherwise hard to believe and that, as a precondition, requires you to pay money (perhaps for a supposed “fee” or “tax”).
5. Be extra careful when providing personal information over the telephone or Internet. Scam artists hide at the other end of the phone line or computer screen. So, don’t give bank account information, Social Security numbers or personal data in response to an unsolicited phone call or e-mail. Remember that a legitimate company would never ask for passwords or other personal information by e-mail.
6. Safeguard your incoming and outgoing mail. It could include checks, credit card applications, bank statements and other items of value to a thief. Try to send and receive mail using locked mailboxes or otherwise secure locations. Remove incoming mail from your mailbox as soon as possible.
7. Stop bandits from recycling your trash into cash. Thieves known as “dumpster divers” pick through garbage looking for credit card applications, monthly bank statements, receipts, “loan checks” (mailed by financial institutions with offers to “write yourself a loan”) and other documents they can use to commit fraud. Before tossing out these items, destroy them, preferably using a “crosscut” shredder that turns paper into confetti.
8. Limit the confidential information in your wallet in case it is lost or stolen. Do not carry around more checks, credit cards or other bank items than you need. Never keep passwords or PINs on or near your checkbook, credit card, ATM card or debit card.
9. Review your credit card bills and bank statements as soon as they arrive. If you notice something suspicious, perhaps a credit card purchase you did not make or an unauthorized withdrawal from your checking account, contact your financial institution immediately.
10. Monitor your credit report for warning signs of fraud. Most experts say you should check your credit report at least once a year from each of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax (800-685-1111, http://www.equifax.com/); Experian (888-397-3742, http://www.experian.com/) and TransUnion (800-888-4213, http://www.transunion.com/).