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Protect Yourself from Identity Theft - For Free!

Updated on September 15, 2011

Want to protect yourself from identity theft? Not willing to shell out money for someone else to do so?

Don’t! You can prevent identity theft on your own—for free!

Instead of having someone else do it, it may be better for you to do it on your own. But be prepared to do some work.

First, it’s a good idea to get a copy of your credit reports from each of the credit reporting agencies. Each of the three companies can give you one free credit report a year, so it’s a good idea to pull one every four months to cover you year-round. This way, instead of pulling all three once a year, you can be more proactive by checking every four months at no additional cost. The only truly free website is www.annualcreditreport.com, do not be suckered in by the credit bureau offers that proclaim to give you a free credit report but then enroll you in a 7 day free credit monitoring trial that turns in to a monthly charge after 7 days.

Second, contact each of the credit bureaus and have a fraud alert placed on your account. Fraud alerts are free, and temporarily flag your account for fraudulent activity. What this does is require the creditor to call you personally to verify it is you opening the accounts. Technically they are only required, per the FACT Act passed by Congress, to verify your identity but this typically means they will call you at the number you put in your credit file while placing your fraud alert. Fraud alerts expire every 90 days so you have to renew them frequently unless you are a victim of identity theft, in which case you can have them extended to 7 years if you provide proof including a police report. With a fraud alert, you know where and when fraudulent activity is occurring and can stop it in its tracks.

Do not place what’s called a credit or security freeze on your account, as this costs money (usually $10/bureau) to set and unset and keeps you from applying for your own credit such as a bank or car loan, not to mention department store do not pay for one year deals. A credit freeze will also stop legitimate people from looking at your credit file such as utilities, landlords and future employers. Tread carefully with these and beware the fees, they add up quickly. That being said they can be the right choice for people who no longer need credit or are currently under attack. Again, be careful of the credit bureaus as they will try to sell you their credit freeze service for a monthly charge. This is not recommended, at all, because they only freeze your credit at the one bureau and as such that is only 33% protection.

Credit monitoring is also an option, but really it only tells you, after the fact, that your identity has been compromised. It is also not free.

Third, remove yourself from junk mail and pre-approved credit offers. This is how numerous thieves get your information—you get a letter for a pre-approved credit card, they steal it and fill in the information, send it out with an address they have access to, and ta-dah, free credit lines under someone else’s name. Visit www.optoutprescreen.com or call 1-888-5OptOut (1-888-567-8688) to opt-out of credit offers. Vists the Direct Marketing Association for instructions to remove yourself from junk mail lists. Also, be sure to remove your mail as soon as you can from the mailbox, as this is an easy target for thieves during the day while you’re at work or out with the kids. A locked mailbox is a good idea as well.

Fourth, stop giving out your Social Security number and question anyone who asks for it. Do they really need it? Wouldn’t some other form of identification be sufficient? Your Social Security number is your personally identifiable number and is considered by identity thieves to be the crown jewel. Protect it. Don't carry it, or your passport, in your wallet or purse unless necessary.

Fifth, buy and use a cross-cut shredder. There are many dumpster-divers who steal or rummage through peoples garbage seeking their personal and confidential information. Don’t give them the opportunity to ruin your good name.

Sixth, protect your computer with anti-virus, phishing and keylogging software. Use a firewall. Norton, McAfee, or Zone Alarm are excellent.

Finally, you may want to consider identity theft insurance but this part is obviously not free. Unfortunately, we live in a world where many people are out to hurt everyday good citizens and identity theft attacks can occur from as far away as Russia. Now I wish the above advice would fully protect you but unfortunately there is no such thing as full proof identity protection. Not from LifeLock, not from anyone. That is why these services offer guarantees. Identity insurance isn’t free which is why I only say to consider it. Certainly by following the steps above you will greatly diminish your chances of becoming a victim.

Also, in the event your purse or wallet is stolen, it’s always a good idea to make copies of everything in your wallet—from credit cards to library cards—front and back. Most credit cards have a 1-800 number to call for customer service posted on the back as well as the CID, and by having a copy of the front, you also have the number handy. And, in the event of a theft, you will be able to tell the police exactly what you had in your purse or wallet without racking your brain to remember what was in there.

These are just a few but the most effective ways to protect yourself from identity theft. Prevention is key—no one wants to deal with the many headaches involved with recovering from identity theft. It’s far better to always be one step ahead of the criminal. Protect yourself now.

If you have an identity theft tip, and it isn't posted above, then please consider including it in the comment section below. The more educated people we have the less damage these criminals will be able to do.

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