Often, the things you do to make your life more convenient are actually the ones putting you right in harm’s way.
Consider the following seven everyday habits that could make you an easy target for an identity thief:
1. Mailing documents with personal information from your own mailbox.
It may be tempting to walk to the end of your driveway to mail your tax return, an insurance form, or a credit card application, but you can never be sure in whose hands that important paperwork may land.
Identity thieves have been known to comb through mail in order to snatch documents with sensitive personal and financial information, such as your date of birth, Social Security and credit card numbers, and bank account details.
If a fraudster is able to glean enough information from your mailbox, he or she could hijack your credit and bank accounts or open new accounts in your name.
Tip: If you need to mail a document that contains personal information, mail it from the post office.
(Click here to learn what to do if you’re a victim of tax identity theft)
2. Giving out your Social Security number unnecessarily.
Your Social Security number is your most important personal identifier, and as a result, it is a hot-ticket item for identity thieves.
In some circumstances, you’ll be required to provide your Social Security number, such as when you start a new job, apply for credit, or file your tax return.
However, in other situations, your Social Security number may not be required—even if you are asked to disclose it or there’s a space for it on the paperwork you’re filling out. Providing your Social Security number is typically optional at a doctor’s office, for example.
Tip: When you are asked to provide your Social Security number, ask if it’s required. You may be able to give an alternative form of identification or just omit the number altogether.
3. Logging in to public WiFi.
Connecting to public WiFi has become more common than ever as consumers seek out an Internet connection for their smartphones and tablets.
You should think twice, though, before connecting to a public hotspot at a coffee shop, restaurant, or airport. Public WiFi is unsecure, so hackers could swipe any information sent over the network. They’ve even figured out how to create phony networks to steal information.
Tip: Steer clear of public WiFi, especially if you need to log in to online banking, email, social media, or any other account that contains personal or financial information. Seek out a password-protected, secure connection instead.
4. Making purchases on unfamiliar websites.
You may be comfortable shopping online and never flinch when entering your credit card information, but not all websites are created equal. Phishing websites, for example, are created to look legitimate, but they are really just designed to steal your personal information.
Tip: If you are not familiar with the website, do your homework. Try searching for the name and website URL to find customer review. Then make sure the website is secure—an “s” following “http” at the beginning of the address usually indicates a secure connection.
5. Using weak passwords for online accounts.
You aren’t doing yourself any favors by creating weak passwords that are easy to keep track of. You are, however, helping hackers who are out to steal your login information in order to access your data.
Tip: Create a unique password for each of your accounts, and include a combination of numbers, punctuation, and upper and lowercase letters. Don’t use information you may share on social media, such as your pet’s name or favorite sports team, or anything that would be easy to guess.
6. Oversharing on social media.
Whether you’re into updating your status, tweeting, or uploading photos, divulging too much information about yourself on social media networks could make you vulnerable to identity theft. If you share enough personal information, such as your date of birth or address, a fraudster could have the details necessary to steal your identity.
Tip: Share sparingly on social media, and review your privacy settings so you know if any of your information is public. Be wary of connecting with anyone you do not know.
7. Responding slowly to a data breach.
If you receive a notification saying you may have been the victim of a data breach, don’t just brush it aside. In 2013, one in three consumers who received a data breach notification letter became an identity fraud victim, according to Javelin Strategy & Research’s 2014 Identity Fraud Study.
Tip: Take advantage of any free credit monitoring that is offered in the wake of a data breach. Carefully review all of your financial statements, and regularly check your credit report so you can spot any suspicious activity before it gets out of hand.
Restoring your personal and financial life after falling victim to identity theft can be a long and stressful process, so practice good privacy and security habits now to help protect yourself.