With just a few bits of information, sophisticated criminals can steal your identity. It's more common than you'd think: According to the United States Department of Justice, 7% of U.S. residents age 16 or older were victims of identity theft in 2014.
While one of the most common forms of identity theft is using someone's credit card information to make unauthorized charges, there are other, more serious crimes that can be committed, including applying for new credit cards, filing false taxes and medical identity theft, where health care services are accessed under a false identity.
Protecting yourself from all these forms of theft requires making sure your sensitive personal information is secure.
1. Be extra vigilant with your social security number.
Don't give out your social security number unless it's absolutely essential, and reduce the risk of misplacing your card by not carrying it around. Only offer up the numbers when 100% necessary. With access to your social security, an identity thief can cause a lot of financial trouble.
2. Shred all your papers.
Junk mail, bank statements and store ads all reveal different bits of information about your life. Piecing together your paper trail can disclose more than you'd imagine, so make it a common practice in your life to shred any papers that have your name, address, email, phone number or other sensitive personal information.
3. Stay on top of your passwords.
Those with online accounts should regularly change their passwords, in addition to making sure passwords are different for each site and opting for multi-factor authentication whenever possible. Equally important is ensuring passwords are unique and complex by using random combinations of letters, numbers and characters. Consider using a password manager to remember and create passwords.
4. Dispose of gadgets properly.
Your laptops, computers, tablets and mobile devices contain a lot of personal information, so it is important to wipe them clean before discarding them. According to the Federal Trade Commission, people should overwrite, delete or physically destroy their hard drive prior to disposal. Similarly, personal information on mobile phones should be deleted before devices are discarded.
5. Check your social media privacy settings.
If you're active on social media and not wary of your privacy settings, then you can accidentally give out more information than you realize. Check all your social media platforms — including those you are no longer active on — to see what information you have shared, who can see them and if you have any strangers in your direct circle. Depending on how private your account is, consider keeping things like addresses and birth dates off of social media.
6. Secure your internet and Wi-Fi.
The FTC recommends securing your wireless network at home and making sure information on your network is encrypted. This step scrambles information so hackers can't get a front-row seat of what's going on in your network. When in public, make sure you're connecting to secure and encrypted Wi-Fi networks. It's also a good habit to not do any financial transactions while on a public network.