7 quick tasks to protect your ID

Got 10 minutes? Then you can take a step to prevent identity theft


7 quick tasks to protect your ID
7 quick tasks to protect your ID

Protecting yourself against identity theft and fraud can seem overwhelming. You've heard you need to make your passwords more secure, check credit reports, shred paper piles, install security software on your computer and more. It's hard to know where to even start.

Instead of throwing up your hands and doing nothing, set a timer and tackle these tasks for a few minutes a day. Here are seven steps to take that require five or 10 minutes -- and three you can tackle in an hour or less. Ready, set, go.

1. Shred mail. (5 minutes)

You do have a shredder, right? Move that shredder to the room where you go through your mail. Every day after sorting the mail, toss the rejects in the shredder.

Shred utility bills, credit card billing statements, anything with your name or other personal information that you're not filing safely away, says Rod Griffin, director of public education at credit reporting agency Experian. "I shred anything that has my name on it," Griffin says. With a shredder close at hand, you won't end up with a mountain of paper. 

2. Lighten your load. (5 minutes)

Got five minutes? Clean out your wallet, purse or man bag. File or shred those receipts and other information you've been carrying around.

Although receipts should only contain a truncated version of your credit card number, they still show behavioral habits, which could help ID thieves build a profile about you, says Karen Barney, program director of the Identity Theft Resource Center based in San Diego, California. "Don't give the thief any more than he needs to have," she says.

Especially important: If your purse or wallet has your children's identifying information -- including Social Security cards, immunization records and birth certificates -- get those records out of your wallet and into a file at home, Griffin says. That will help protect your children from identity theft.

3. Tidy your home. (5 minutes)

Check around the house for credit card statements, bills and other paperwork containing personal info that's lying out where anyone can see. Then file that paperwork or fire up your shredder. This is especially important if you have frequent guests or service people helping out in your home.

Don't tempt people to commit a crime of opportunity. "Tidiness helps," Griffin says. "Familiar fraud (fraud committed by people you know) is quite common. People you think are your friends see billing account information left out and use it to commit fraud. Calling the police on your best friend is hard."

4. Change passwords. (10 minutes)

Replace your too-simple passwords with more secure versions. "It's important for people to have a unique password for every account, but it doesn't have to be as bad as you think," says Steven Weisman, of Amherst, Massachusetts, author of "Identity Theft Alert" and writer of the blog Scamicide.

Create an easy-to-recall base phrase such as "I love Elvis" or "I hate housework," add a couple of extra characters such as $!* and then add identifying factors for each account such as "Ama" for Amazon. To be even more secure, add a random capital letter in the middle of your sentence.

5. Check your credit report. (10 minutes)

Pull your free credit report from one of the three credit reporting agencies -- Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. The law entitles you to a free report every year from each agency, which you can get at Check one report every four months to keep regular track of your credit history.

Getting and printing the report should take only five minutes; use the other five minutes to read it and look for discrepancies.

6. Secure social media profiles. (10 minutes)

If you have 10 minutes, snoop yourself online. Check your own social media accounts and remove anything that's too personal, Barney says. Modify your privacy settings to reflect who really needs to see your personal information. Think twice about posting your date of birth, family members, hometown or even where you live now.

7. Order a fraud alert. (10 minutes)

Add a free security alert to your accounts at one of the three credit reporting agencies, Griffin says. That agency will notify the other two. A fraud alert requires potential creditors to verify your identification before extending credit in your name.

As a more drastic step, you can put a security or credit freeze on your account at each of the three credit reporting agencies. Such a freeze prevents new lenders from viewing your credit history -- preventing fraudsters from opening new accounts in your name. "That's one of the things that will make you the most secure," Weisman says. "Even if someone gets your Social Security number, they won't be able to access your credit report."

The cost of a credit freeze varies by state and is typically $5-$10 per credit bureau -- unless you have proof (for example, a police report) showing that you're a victim of identity theft, in which case it's often free.

If you go this route, you have to remember to thaw out your accounts several days before you get a new mobile phone, refinance a mortgage or apply for a credit card or other credit. The cost to unfreeze your account also varies by state.


1. Secure your computer. (30 minutes)
Update your virus, malware and spam protection in about half an hour. Make sure your firewall is up-to-date and working. That helps protect you from online predators and scammers.

2. Lock up tax information. (30 minutes)
Back up your tax information onto a CD or thumb drive, take the information off your computer and then lock up the backup drive. "If your computer does get hacked, your information is safe," Barney says.

3. Climb that paper mountain. (60 minutes)
If you have an hour, you're ready for the big job. Go through your filing cabinets and piles of paper. Shred documents you no longer need that have personal information on them.

Once you've completed these tasks, you should spend just a few minutes every day to stay safe. "It takes five minutes or less every day if you don't let it pile up," Barney says.

See related: Avoiding fraud in a post-EMV world, Identity theft packs an emotional toll, Ranking fraud: Not all security breaches are equal

Published: January 7, 2016

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Updated: 10-28-2016

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