How can I protect myself against credit card fraud and identity theft?

Is your personal data safe? Many large organizations have experienced cybersecurity breaches that expose their customers’ data to identity thieves. Criminals also use a variety of other schemes to get access to your confidential data—and your accounts. A few smart steps can help you prevent problems, however.  

Know the signs. Here are some of the indicators that you may have been a victim to unauthorized use of an account or your personal data: 

  • Your credit card or bank statement shows purchases or withdrawals you haven’t made.  
  • You stop receiving bills or account statements. A thief may be stealing them from your mailbox so that you don’t see fraudulent activity.  
  • You receive calls about outstanding debts that aren’t yours or your checks are refused for lack of funds when you ought to have enough.  
  • You get medical bills for services you haven’t had.  
  • When you file your tax return, the Internal Revenue Service tells you that a return has already been filed under your name.  

In all cases, contact the organization involved and report the problem immediately. 

Protect your personal information. Don’t reveal your Social Security number or any other personal data to strangers who call, send a letter, email or text. Keep your Social Security or account numbers private, and don’t write them on checks or other places where they can be easily seen. Don’t leave your wallet unattended, and don’t carry your Social Security card or credit cards or other documents that you don’t need every day, in case your wallet is stolen. Store information on your PINs or passwords and all financial statements and documents in a secure place. Shred any statements you receive from financial institutions and other confidential documents you’re no longer using, as well as expired credit cards. And don’t forget to sign your cards as soon as you get them, so that a thief can’t do it instead.  

Cut back on sharing. Personal information is often used to verify your identity when you want to access an account. So, avoid discussing personal details such as your birthdate, your mother’s maiden name, your first car or the name of your first pet on social media sites. Identity thieves may be able to use them to get into your accounts and make fraudulent purchases. 

Sign up for alerts. Ask your bank or other financial institution to tell you if there is suspicious activity on your accounts. The sooner you identify when something is not right, the easier it will be to fix.  

Keep your devices safe. Install firewalls and anti-virus software to protect you against viruses, spyware, phishing and other intrusions, and use strong and complex passwords. Consider using a virtual private network, which can keep your network connection secure even when you’re using public wi-fi. And don’t forget to make use of the security features on your smartphone and other devices.   

Check your credit status. You can review your credit report from each of the three credit rating agencies—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—for free once a year. Look for signs of identity theft, such as unauthorized purchases, and report any errors or signs of fraud. Consumers can place security freezes on their accounts to prevent anyone from checking their information, which can stop identity thieves from establishing credit in your name. You can also set a fraud alert if you know your information has been stolen or exposed to potential scammers, so that lenders must check first to see if an action has been authorized before they open a new account or extend credit.  

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission offers a wide variety of free resources for consumers on identity theft. You can report identity theft to the FTC at IdentityTheft.gov.