Here’s a quick news flash- even if you’re the smartest, most careful IT nerd on the block when it comes to online security, there’s a 50% or better chance that you’ve already fallen victim to an identity thief.  If you’re just an everyday, happy-go-lucky consumer, then forget about it, the odds that you have already become a victim are way over 95%.  That’s because cyber-criminals no longer play fair and they’re not even targeting you anymore.  Today, it’s far easier to hack into a college or state website and steal millions of identities at once.  So yeah, we hate to be the bearer of bad news, but somewhere there’s probably a degenerate with bad intentions that has several vital pieces of your personal information.

On average, it will take 5-8 months from the time your identity is stolen until a criminal uses it to commit a crime, simply because so many social security numbers and credit profiles are available to choose from.  During that “cool down” period, there will likely be no warning that you’re about to fall prey to a criminal at all.  In fact, if your credit score is impressive enough and some other criteria signal that you don’t keep up with your credit reports, then you’re virtually guaranteed to become a target sometime within the near future.  The information below will help you prepare for that reality and how to overcome it.

Watch for Suspicious Mail/Email

fish

In many cases, an initial sign of identity theft will come in the form of an email or a letter in mail from a company that’s requesting additional information about one of your financial accounts.  One major thing that Americans have going for them is that a lot of these solicitations come from overseas, so the English is broken and easily spotted as being questionable.  Sometimes the documentation received is genuine, however, and it’s the first major tipoff that something is amiss.  That’s why you should always open any types of banking or loan documents, even if it’s not an establishment that you currently conduct business with.

Hackers right here in our own neighborhoods use a different tactic though; they will simply sign up for legitimate credit offers in your name and then look to intercept any follow-up documentation straight from your mailbox.  If you’re working a 9-5 job like the rest of America then there’s not a whole lot you can do to stop it, short of having your mail held by the Post Office or delivered to a PO Box.  A mailbox with a lock on it works to some extent as well, but a motivated criminal won’t think twice of jimmying it open.  That’s why the other tips below are so critical in protecting your identity.

Take Advantage of Free Credit Monitoring

credit monitoring

Chances are fairly good that you’ve received a letter in the mail recently about your personal information being compromised.  As we mentioned earlier, it’s almost alarming if you haven’t been notified of identity theft, because retailers from Amazon to major utility companies to entire state databases have been hacked over the past 12 months.  While it is certainly is unfortunate, at least several business entities are trying to make things right through free credit monitoring.  This service essentially gives you 24/7 access to your credit reports from all 3 bureaus and updates you whenever a change posts to your account.  In most cases, this will be a $200-400 service that’s being provided at no cost to you, so it’s definitely worth taking.

On one hand, credit monitoring does absolutely nothing to stop a criminal from committing fraud in your name.  It will, however, keep you updated on any new or unusual credit activity, which means that you can often stop an identity thief before his crime spree reaches epic levels.  Since most identity theft scenarios occur without the victim finding out for months or even years, having the ability to react almost immediately places considerable power in the consumer’s hands.

Consider a Full Credit Lock

locked cards

A safer, more practical approach in today’s society may be to order a credit freeze, which prevents the three major credit bureaus from releasing your credit report to anyone.  The theory behind this move is that since only a tiny fraction of the world’s lenders would consider a loan approval without pulling credit, it drastically reduces the impact of having your social security number stolen.  While this wouldn’t help if someone has stolen an actual credit card or bank account number from one of your online retailers, it would effectively block any new application for credit without your direct permission.

All but two states (Alabama and Michigan) will allow a credit freeze and this process is completed directly through the three major credit bureaus.  There is a $10 fee per bureau ($30 total) and the freeze can be removed at any time for the same cost.  Since consumers have the option to call ahead and pre-approve the release of credit information to a bank or car dealership, for example, there is little reason not to have this safeguard in place.  The only time it really gets tricky is applying for instant-approval credit cards online or in-store, but the slight hassle is certainly worth the additional protection.