Identity theft is when someone assumes another person’s identity without permission. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2014, an estimated 17.6 million Americans ages 16 or older were victims of identity theft. Identity theft is a serious crime with devastating consequences for both the victim and the perpetrator.

Many victims have experienced tremendous amounts of out-of-pocket financial losses. The U.S. Department of Justice reported that, in 2014, the total financial loss as a result of identity theft was $15.4 billion. Many financial institutions have notifications in place to alert consumers of any fraudulent activity, and as a consumer, you can take steps to protect yourself from identity theft. Explore the following four tips for identity theft protection.

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Use Strong Passwords and Change Them Often

Creating strong passwords for your personal accounts is one step you can take to prevent identity theft. Be creative when developing strong passwords: Don’t use something that is typical or obvious such as a first or last name, home address, child’s name, or date of birth. Instead, try a password that consists of a special phrase, such as “looking at the stars.”

You can also use your phone keypad to substitute numbers for letters. For example, if you select stars as your password, then the corresponding numbers would be 78277. Also, be sure to change your password often. Try setting a reminder in your phone every 60 or 90 days to change your password.

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Limit What Personal Information You Carry

When you leave your house, limit what personal information you carry. Documents such as credit cards, debit cards, or a driver’s license are the only items you should carry in your purse or wallet. Items such as your Social Security card and health insurance card should stay at home and stored in a secure place.

Check Your Credit Report

One of the easiest ways to protect yourself from identity theft is to get a free credit report annually. All three credit bureaus, including TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian, compile information on this annual report. You can also find many credit report monitoring services available for a fee.

Be Careful When Sharing Sensitive Information

Be careful about what information you share at your workplace, doctor’s office, and at your child’s school. If you’re asked to share personal information, always ask why the requestor needs the information. You also want to know what measures are in place to safeguard your information.

Many social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, ask you for personal information. This information is vital to authenticate your identity, but it also puts you at risk for identity theft. Give the least amount of information needed to authenticate your identity and never give out your Social Security number, address, or birth date on any social networking site.

Many victims of identity theft aren’t aware that someone has stolen their identity until after the theft occurs. Creating strong passwords, checking your credit report, and limiting what information you share are a few steps you can take to protect yourself. If you believe you’re a victim of identity theft, act immediately to limit the damage.

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