Add “identity theft” to the list of things that are fun to watch in movies, but probably are a nightmare in real life. (This list also includes jumping down waterfalls, hacking someone’s head off and kissing Johnny Depp. He just kinda looks to me like he doesn’t floss, is all.)
Unlike “Identity Thief,” nobody’s going to make a blockbuster movie starring Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman about checking your credit report. But you should do it anyway. Here’s how to avoid getting your identity stolen out here in real, non-Hollywood life.
Don’t be dumb. Don’t give out personal information to strangers on the phone. Don’t click on links in phish-y looking emails. Shred anything with your Social Security number or your full birth date on it. That means shred, not “half-assedly tear up a little before dropping it in the trash.”
Pull your credit reports and inspect them thoroughly. You can do this three times a year—once from each credit bureau—at annualcreditreport.com. If you see anything fishy, like an account you don’t recognize, call for clarification. (Quick reminder: Checking your own credit report does not affect your credit score. And your credit report doesn’t include your credit score; you’ll have to check that separately.)
In certain situations, credit cards are more reliable than debit cards. If a thief takes your card information, it will be easier on you if he or she decides to take your credit card. If your debit card is stolen, that money is taken right out of your checking account, and who knows how long it will take to get back. If the thief uses your credit card, well, that wasn’t your money in the first place, so you shouldn’t miss it. Also, if you don’t report debit card fraud in a timely manner, you could be liable for up to $500—the limit for credit cards is only $50, and plenty of banks waive that fee. My rule of thumb is if you can’t see the person handling your card, it’s safer to use credit. This includes online purchases and restaurants where the server takes the card away from your table.
See if your bank can set up email or text alerts when certain things happen—say, for example, a purchase of $100 or more, or an ATM withdrawal. If the transaction is legit, you can ignore it, and if not, you can jump on it.
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