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Short and Sweet Summary: Thieves like grieving widows. We’re more susceptible to gimmicks and ruses because our pain sometimes clouds our vision. But you can take the following steps to protect your identity and thwart thieves’ attempts to take advantage of you.

Identity theft is a big problem in our technology-driven world.

We put all our personal information online as a matter of habit and ease. We buy things online with our credit cards. Pay our bills online.  Enter our personal information on social media sites.

So, hackers gain access to our most personal, valuable information through company data breaches (think Target or Equifax), mail theft, phishing schemes and a host of other ways.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to protect your identity so the thieves can’t take advantage of you in the first place. The good thing is, many practical ways exist to protect your identity.

Stay tuned…we’ll go over both free and paid services below.

First A Personal Story

About a year after my husband died a thief stole my purse from my car. Yep. I left my purse in the front seat. In plain view. Like a dumbass. Doh!

Which is something I seriously never, ever do. 

So, why, you ask, did I leave my purse in the front seat of my car like a dumbass?

Well, I had a hell week for one. My mammogram showed a “suspicious area” so I was called back for a second image (everything turned out OK). My boys had piano recitals and baseball playoff games, so it was a week of non-stop practices and games for both. And, our grief support group’s balloon release event was especially gut-wrenching for my youngest son.

Bah humbug.

My older son’s baseball team picnic rounded out my hell week. After rushing from the piano recitals on Sunday to the park for the team picnic, my brain was mush. 

I left my purse in the car because the park was empty except for the families from our team. It was raining, and I didn’t want to leave my purse out on the picnic table. No one else was in the park for Pete’s sake!

OK. Enough excuses. I did a dumb thing and my purse was stolen. Luckily, I had my keys and phone with me. Whew! But the thief had my driver’s license, credit cards, my marriage certificate, and my husband’s death certificate.

So, why, you ask, did I carry the marriage and death certificates in my purse like a dumbass?

Well, as we widows know, we’re asked for one or both documents incessantly as you wind your way through closing out a shit-ton of accounts. It was always just easier to carry them on me.

Bad idea…you know, hindsight being 20/20 and all.

Why I use Identity Guard to Protect My Identity

One of the first things I did after canceled my credit cards was to sign up for an identity theft protection service called Identity Guard. I don’t have the time or inclination to continually monitor all my personal accounts plus my credit report, so I’m more than willing to pay for this service.

It’s a peace of mind that’s priceless.

You can sign up for Identity Guard today (aff link) and get a 30-day free trial to test it out and see if it’s something that would make your life easier.

Here’s why I love Identity Guard. It monitors:

  • Social Security Number – Identity Guard monitors my social security number on my credit report and the Internet’s “black market.” It alerts me to any reported personal and financial information changes. This is the biggest plus because thieves use your social security number to open, close or alter accounts.
  • Address – Identity Guard alerts me if someone files a Change of Address with the United States Postal Service. A thief could submit a Change of Address form in my name to receive all my mail – including important financial documents. If a thief opens bank accounts or credit cards in my name, I wouldn’t receive the statements because of the address change. Sneaky bastards.
  • Credit Cards – Identity Guard monitors all my credit card activity. It notifies me of any credit report inquiries like new credit card applications. Of course, if it’s a credit card I’ve applied for, I know it’s all on the up-and-up. If I didn’t apply for a credit card, I would dig a little deeper to find out what’s going on. If a thief opens an account in my name, I’ll know it before too many transactions get posted. The biggest plus for me, other than continually monitoring my personal information, is my credit card info is all recorded in one place. All I had to do was enter my credit card numbers, assign a nickname (Delta AMX or Chase Sapphire Visa, etc.) and enter the customer care phone number for each credit card. Now, if my purse is ever stolen again or I lose my wallet, god forbid, all I have to do is contact Identity Guard and they cancel all of my credit cards for me.
  • Bank AccountsIdentity Guard helps protect my bank accounts by alerting me if an account has been opened or closed in my name. Identity Guard reports any suspicious activity in my personal account to me.
  • Provides Identity Theft Expense Coverage up to 1,000,000
  • I can recoup certain expenses I might incur to help clear my name in the event my identity is stolen. Please refer to the actual policies for terms, conditions, and exclusions of coverage if you seek out this kind of coverage.

Free Ways to Protect Your Identity

You can monitor your accounts and credit cards on your own if you take the time to periodically review your financial statements. Here are some free and low-tech ways to protect yourself:

Place a Fraud Alert on Your Credit Report

A fraud alert means a business must verify your identity before it issues credit. The business will call you to confirm you’re applying for credit. If they can’t get a hold of you, no credit is issued. I added a fraud alert to my credit report after my stolen purse incident. It only lasts for 90 days, but you can continually renew it if you so choose.

If you place a fraud alert with one credit bureau, the other two credit bureaus are also notified.

Review Your Credit Report Annually (or More Often)

You can get a free credit report when you place a fraud alert on your account or, thanks to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you can request a free copy of your credit report once every 12 months from each of the three major credit bureaus.

You can stagger your requests from the three major credit bureaus and theoretically review your credit report for free once every 4 months.

Keep Your Social Security Number Private

Your social security number should be stored in a safe place like a bank safe-deposit box or fireproof safe. Never carry your social security card with you.

Don’t give your social security number to anyone who calls, texts or sends email messages. Maybe some of these emails look legit – but they’re not.

Your bank, or really any company for that matter, isn’t going to email you asking for a social security number.

Ever. Like, never.

Capiche?

Limit Your Personal Information on Social Media Site

You don’t need to include your date of birth, mother’s maiden name or other identifying information thieves could use to access accounts.

Seriously. You don’t.

I know you want to open Facebook on your birthday and see all the “happy birthday!” messages because it makes you feel good that your 1,213 friends recognize your birthday, but you’re trading your identity security for a few measly Facebook messages.

I will personally send you a happy birthday message myself if you take your birthdate off Facebook.

Sign up For Text Alerts From Your Bank or Credit Card Companies

You can sign up to get email or text alerts from your bank for any number of transactions. The most common alerts would be for large withdrawal amounts or if your account drops below a certain limit. Setting alerts keeps you in the loop on everything happening at your bank.

The same applies to credit cards. My credit card companies alert me when my card is used online (not in person) or if a purchase exceeds $100 (or any number you set). If I can’t identify a purchase, I immediately call the credit card company before any serious damage occurs.

Review Bank Statements

Make sure you look at your bank statement monthly to see if any money is missing or if checks were written or cashed against your account that you didn’t write or cash.

Review Credit Card Statements

When your credit card bill comes due, look at it line-by-line to uncover any items you didn’t purchase. Mistakes happen. ALL. THE. TIME. Check your statements.

Check your statements.

Use Strong Passwords

It’s hard to continually come up with good passwords so I suggest using a site like strong password generator to randomly suggest strong passwords for your online accounts and even home Wi-Fi network.

I keep all of my passwords in a Word document table. Old school, I know. But I back up my files daily with Carbonite, so I can look up my passwords whenever I need to.

Only Use Secured Wi-Fi

Never check a bank balance or financial statement using an unsecured Wi-Fi network like at a coffee shop or library. I don’t even check email using an unsecured Wi-Fi.

You never know who’s lurking around those free networks ready to pounce on your personal data.

Shred Personal and Financial Documents

Invest in a shredder to shred personal and financial documents. Thieves can go through trash and recover documents, credit card receipts, ATM receipts, bills, etc. printed with your name, address or account numbers.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to monitor all your reports and statements, you can pay for services to do it for you.

Sign up for Identity Guard

The Identity Guard theft protection service protects your identity from identity thieves. Other theft protection companies like LifeLock or Identity Force offer similar services, but I personally recommend Identify Guard.

I’ve used Identity Guard for 4+ years now and I’m very happy with their service. They are super easy to work with and have all the coverage options I need.

Membership Organizations

Membership organizations like AARP or Costco offer members-only discounted credit monitoring services.

Banks or Financial Institutions

Research your bank or financial institution’s offering because many banks offer their own version of identity theft protection for their account holders.

Do your due diligence and verify if it’s more or less (both in terms of cost and what’s monitored) than a comprehensive identity theft protection service.

Widow Wrap-Up

Being a vigilant consumer requires time and attention. I’m trying my hardest to make it damn near impossible for anyone to steal my identity and you should too. Even though a thief stole my purse and got away with lots of personal information, my identity hasn’t been hacked. But, I have protections in place if they do.

What steps are you taking now, or will you take, to protect your identity?

Share in the comments!