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5 ways to thwart identity theft

February 28, 2012

By Lynnette Khalfani-Cox | Money Rates Columnist

According to Javelin Strategy Research, identity theft grew by 13 percent in 2011 to nearly 12 million cases. Fueling the surge in identity theft were both an increase in smartphone usage by American consumers, as well as several major data breaches.

While no one can single-handedly thwart hackers who tap into company records -- as was the case recently when cyber-criminals hacked the online shoe retailer Zappos.com and gained access to the information of 24 million customers -- you can still take steps to better guard your personal information.

With National Consumer Protection Week (March 4-10) just around the corner, here are five ways to help thwart identity theft when you're shopping online, conducting mobile banking or just going about your everyday activities.

1. Protect your Social Security number

There's rarely a need to carry your Social Security card with you, so store it in a safe place at home rather than carrying it with you. If an identity thief gets hold of your Social Security card -- or any other card that may have your Social Security number, such as a military ID or Medicare card -- it could lead to disastrous consequences.

Also, if someone asks for your Social Security number, ask why they need it. Unless you're applying for credit or have received a job offer, there's very few reasons why anyone should need your Social Security number.

2. Don't divulge private information to strangers

It's a bad idea to reveal sensitive personal information to anyone who calls, emails or writes you unsolicited. So if someone contacts you out of the blue -- even if they claim to be from an organization you do business with -- never reveal to them your bank account information, PIN number, password or Social Security number.

Also be vigilant about emails asking you to "confirm" your Social Security number or account numbers. Those are typically "phishing" scams run by con artists. If you get such an email, report it to your bank immediately.

"Consumers should never provide personal information, credit card or ATM numbers over the phone or Internet unless they initiated the call or transaction," says TransUnion spokesman spokesman John Branham.

3. Use PIN numbers and passwords wisely

You're potentially making it easy for identity thieves if you pick a PIN or password that's your birth date or your child's birth date. Such dates can be easily tracked down, especially if the criminals have other pieces of your information. It's also a good practice to create unique PINs and passwords for most of your accounts and to change them periodically.

"Never write down your PIN numbers or passwords, as this will increase the chances of the information falling into the wrong hands," says Chris Bridges, head of Vision Credit Services. "Even when you get any form of information from the banks or for credit cards, make sure you destroy the information either by burning or shredding it."

4. Practice good online habits

If you're shopping online and need to providing financial information, double-check that the URL of the site begins with "https" and not just "http" -- the "s" indicates that it is a secure site. Another key sign about a site's safety is a lock symbol next to the URL, which indicates that the transmission is secure.

Note, however, that scammers can be very good at duplicating official websites and even certain security indicators, so always double-check that a website is authentic if you have any doubts by searching for it through a search engine.

To otherwise heighten your safety online, be sure to use anti-virus and anti-spyware software, as well as a firewall on your computer and your mobile phone.

5. Take special precautions with mobile banking

To increase your financial safety with your mobile device, start by downloading your bank's mobile application to your smartphone. This will ensure you always visit their genuine site, rather than a fraudulent bank website that's been set up by a fraudster.

When using your mobile phone, only connect to the mobile site through a secure wireless network. Avoid sending your private information via the public connections often found in hotels or Internet cafes.

Setting the auto-lock function on your mobile phone or installing software with remote lock-and-wipe capabilities can come in handy if you ever lose your phone. Additionally, when setting up your password, use the "tools" or "security" application that limits the number of times someone can try your password. After three attempts, this will prevent a cyber-crook from accessing your information.

An extra caution

This time of year, there's another reason to be cautious about identity theft: It's tax season.

Greg Lauray, a Pennsylvania-based accountant, says consumers should be especially mindful of online identity theft and other scams that increase around tax season. According to Lauray, scammers often misappropriate the name or logo of the IRS in a bid to con people, and they'll often send bogus messages to your email or mobile phone.

"The Internal Revenue Service receives thousands of reports each year from taxpayers who receive suspicious emails, phone calls, faxes or notices claiming to be from the IRS," Lauray says. "The goal of these scams is to trick you into revealing your personal and financial information. The scammers can then use your information -- like your Social Security number, bank account or credit card numbers -- to commit identity theft or steal your money."

But like many identity-theft scams, avoiding these cons is a matter of verifying who you're dealing with and not divulging anything under suspicious circumstances. If you can make this your first rule for avoiding identity theft, you're off to a very good start.

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