Avoiding Identity Theft: Secure Your Belongings in Public
In the past, people were concerned about protecting cash and jewelry from theft. However, nowadays, with less and less people carrying around large wads of cash, the concern is about theft of information. Identity theft affects close to 13 million people in the United States every year and authorities have said that currently it is “the fastest growing crime across the country”. A thief that gets their hands on your Social Security or checking account number can cause a lot more harm than one that just steals ten dollars from your wallet. While the damage can be great, there are several steps you can take to keep your private information secure.
Don’t leave belongings unattended
One of the most important steps in preventing identity theft is perhaps also the simplest – don’t leave belongings containing sensitive information, such as a laptop, a wallet, or a smartphone, unattended. Few would leave these items alone in a crowded public area, but many do so in familiar places they feel are safe, such as work. However, places that seem safe often are not. Even if your co-workers are trustworthy, most businesses have plenty of people coming in and out: clients, delivery people, friends of co-workers, cleaning people, etc. A visitor could swipe your laptop and never be seen again.
While keeping important belongings with you at all times is best, you may not want to lug everything around every time you go get a cup of coffee or stop by a co-worker’s office. If you are leaving items unattended, try keeping them out of plain sight. True, someone could open your drawer and take your wallet, but that is less likely to occur than if you just leave it on your desk. If you can lock your office door or have a secured storage, like a lockable filing cabinet, at your disposal, take advantage of it.
Lock your laptop
Due to its size and cost, you may not be able or want to simply leave your laptop in a drawer every time you step away from it. Using a laptop lock, which ties your laptop to a stationary item, like a desk, can be a good way to secure your computer. They are fairly cheap, usually costing less than $50. You may even want to use a lock at home. Of course, you probably are not concerned about a family member stealing your laptop, but, if your home is burglarized, it discourages thieves from trying to grab it.
Use password protection
Typing in a password when you turn on your computer is not new – you have probably done it hundreds of times. However, you may be able to get more out of password protection than you are now. Have you password-protected everything you can? Many people forget to password-protect their smartphones and tablets, even though the option is usually available. Make sure your passwords are not easy to guess, and change them periodically. At work, consider logging out or locking your computer when you step away from your desk or adjusting your settings so that you must re-enter your password if it is idle for a specified period of time. You may be able to do the same thing with your smartphone and tablet too.
Encrypt your data
Encryption programs translate regular text or photos into code. A file can be unencrypted by entering a password, which a thief who steals your laptop or smartphone presumably won’t have. Encrypting all your data may not be necessary, just the files containing sensitive information. While encryption programs can sometimes be bypassed by “tech-savvy” thieves, many do not have the knowledge or desire to do so.
Delete your hard drive
What happens if a thief is able to grab your laptop and get past your password? Is your information compromised? Not necessarily. With remote access software, you can usually delete your hard drive as soon as the thief accesses the Internet with your computer. The software is also often able to trace your laptop’s location. Of course, you must install it before your computer is stolen.
The theft of your computer is not the only situation in which you may want to erase your hard drive. If you are disposing of or selling an old computer and it still has personal information on in it, you are putting yourself in a vulnerable position. Simply pressing the delete button is usually not enough to remove files. To completely erase data from your computer, you should use a wiping or erasing utility program, which overwrites the entire hard drive.
Leave unnecessary items out of your wallet
Today, thieves that steal wallets often do not find much cash in them. However, they can still find some items of value, like credit, debit, ATM, and Social Security cards. You can thwart identity theft by only putting in your wallet the cards you truly need. For example, you probably do not need to carry more than one credit card – leave the other ones in a safe place at home. Unless you are applying for a passport or something similar, your Social Security card does not need to be in your wallet. Check your wallet for anything else that may have your Social Security number on it, and leave it out if you can.
Keep a list
Despite your best efforts, there is no guarantee that your belongings will never be lost or stolen. Keeping a list of your credit card, checking, and savings account numbers, along with the phone numbers of the financial institutions, will allow you to contact them quickly if something happens. Remember to keep the list in a safe place to prevent it from being stolen.
We often do not think about theft until after we are the victims of it. However, by then, the damage has been done. Taking the time to protect your belongings before anything happens is well worth the effort.
Revised January 2016.