We at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse wish you a happy, prosperous and private new year. For 2010, resolve to be a privacy advocate. Use our ten tips below to minimize your risk of identity theft, protect your personal information and assert your rights to privacy.
1. Be assertive in guarding your privacy when you are asked to provide sensitive information that you do not feel is necessary. If someone (including healthcare providers, government agencies and employers) asks for your personal information, ask these 5 questions:
- Is providing my information required or voluntary? (Provide only the minimum information necessary.)
- Why do you need this information and how will it be used?
- Do you have a written policy regarding the request for information?
- Who will have access to my information and how will it be protected from unauthorized access? (Remember to ask about third parties!)
- If, when and how will the records be discarded when they are no longer needed?
If you are not satisfied with how your information is handled or the answers that you receive, take your business elsewhere. If you are concerned about a government agency's use of your personal information, contact your city councilmember, state legislator or Congressperson to voice your concern.
2. Guard your mail. Your mailbox often may contain letters which if lost or stolen can result in identity theft. Try to pick up your mail as soon as possible after delivery. If this is not possible, purchase a locking mailbox. Open all your mail including envelopes that include only a P.O. Box as a return address. Credit card companies that send you replacement cards or convenience checks may try to disguise the mailing by including only a limited return address. For additional tips on how to avoid identity theft, read our guide PRC Fact Sheet 17: Coping with Identity Theft.
3. Check your credit reports. You are entitled to a free report from each of the three national credit bureaus once every 12 months. For more information, see the Federal Trade Commission's Facts for Consumers. Another source of useful information is PRC Fact Sheet 6: How Private Is My Credit Report?
5. Find out what’s in your consumer specialty reports. You have the right to free copies of numerous so-called specialty consumer reports which report on such matters as your medical conditions, insurance claims, check writing history, rental history, and employment history. You can find out more by reading our guide to specialty reports at PRC Fact Sheet 6b: "Other" Consumer Reports.
6. Check your Social Security Earnings Statement for any signs of fraud. You should receive one from the Social Security Administration every year about 3 months before your birthday. Look for earnings that exceed the amount you earned. It could be a sign that someone is using your SSN for employment. Also make sure that your employer has correctly reported your earnings. If you did not receive an earnings statement in 2009, contact the Social Security Administration to request one.
7. Avoid using debit or check cards. Credit cards provide better consumer protections, and help protect your bank account from fraudulent activity. Ask your bank to replace your debit card with an ATM card. PRC Fact Sheet 32: Paper or Plastic? explains the advantages and disadvantages of paying by debit card (check card) and credit card.
Shred any unnecessary documents that contain personal information. Always use a cross-cut, diamond or confetti shredder. Never use a strip shredder. It's too easy for a crook to piece the strips together. Before you shred anything that you might need, double check with your accountant, attorney, or tax preparer. For a guide to tax recordkeeping, see IRS Publication 552: Recordkeeping for Individuals or call 1-800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676) to obtain a free paper copy.
9. Stop pre-approved credit and insurance offers in the mail. Call (888) 5-OPT-OUT / (888) 567-8688, or opt out online at www.optoutprescreen.com. You can choose to opt out of credit offers for 5 years by phone through the website. Or you can opt out permanently by mailing the Permanent Opt-Out form, available on the website.
10. Understand the benefits and risks of social networking. When you post information or pictures on a social networking site, understand who might see it without your permission. Ask yourself “Would I give this information to a stranger over the phone?” If the answer is “no,” think twice about posting it online. Read website privacy policies to find out how your information may be shared. For security tips on social networking read the Trend Micro's White Paper: Security Guide to Social Networks (PDF).
For more tips on preserving your privacy and protecting your identity in 2010 please read our guides: