*Editorial Note: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through a credit card issuer partnership.
This article was last updated Aug 19, 2013, but some terms and conditions may have changed or are no longer available. For the most accurate and up to date information please consult the terms and conditions found on the issuer website.
Identity theft costs Americans nearly $2 billion a year. If your identity is stolen, dozens of fraudulent credit cards may be applied for and issued in your name before you even realize you’ve been harmed. Then those can be sold to the highest bidder through criminal networks that extend around the globe. So, what do thieves look for in addition to the obvious data like social security and credit card numbers? The list is long and includes passport and driver’s license information, data related to professional certifications and licenses, insurance policy numbers, and account numbers for phone and utility bills. Student loan applications, mortgage documents, vehicle registration cards, and tax forms also contain plenty of valuable information that thieves can parlay into illegal profits. Monitoring this data is critical, but so is disposing of incidental evidence related to it. If you simply throw it out with the trash there is every chance that it can fall into the wrong hands.
Make Shredding a Habit
Before that happens, invest in a good quality paper shredder. Some are really durable and can handle multiple sheets of paper plus CD discs and old credit cards, which can be found at any office supply store like Staples and Office Depot.
For those that have gone green, hard copies of confidential items can still be exploited, including credit card info, insurance company info, and health care offers that come in the mail. While it may all look like junk, a resourceful thief may collect your garbage and use it to help construct a consumer profile on you. With various bits and pieces of information gathered both online and offline, crooks sometimes successfully apply for credit through the mail, using discarded junk mail offers stolen from unsuspecting people.
Wipe Old Hard Drives Clean
Deleting files on your computer doesn’t necessarily erase them, either, but instead just moves them out of your line of sight. Maybe you typed a letter that included an account number and later deleted it, but it will still be retrievable from the hard drive. There are even downloadable software programs given away for free on the Internet that can be used to scan a hard drive and harvest all the information contained on it. It doesn’t take an IT whiz or professional hacker to break into your old, discarded computer and read your private data.
The process only takes a few minutes to completely clean and erase your hard drive before you sell, donate, or recycle a computer device. Experts recommend programs such as Active@KillDisk, DBan, and Softpedia DP Wiper, which are free to download. Just be sure to backup any programs like your operating system before you wipe the drive clean, because once you run these kinds of powerful programs, the computer will be data fee. To use it, you or whoever gets the computer next will need to reload all the critical software components from scratch.
Vigilance and Common Sense
Some data cannot be shredded or erased, which is why you also need to rely on common sense and prudent vigilance. Believe it or not, children are one of the prime targets of identity theft. Parents and guardians may have no idea that a child’s identity may be used to apply for credit, so it is important that you protect any confidential information related to them such as their social security number and birth certificate.
Take caution with what you post online. Bad guys also plan crimes based on publically available information posted on social media sites, like Facebook. Once they connect the dots they may figure out how to guess your passwords or contact your grandmother and pretend to be your best friend who is vacationing with you and needs emergency cash to pay your bail or hospital bills. If you’re headed out of town and tell your online friends, crooks may break into your home while you’re gone.