"The fact is, you can't protect yourself from all forms of identity theft, and the types that you can guard against require a Rain Man-like focus," said Robert Siciliano, a McAfee consultant and identity theft expert. "One way or another, it's going to cost you time or money or both."
Indeed, you can't fully protect yourself even if you do apply said money and time. But there are ways to improve your odds and restrict a criminal's opportunities to don your identity. Just stay aware that sometimes the "solution" offered is actually part of the problem. Be sure to check Consumer Federation of America (CFA)'s list of best practices for selecting an identity theft service. For further details on how to sort marketing-speak from actual services rendered, take a look at the CFA's study To Catch a Thief: Are Identity Theft Services Worth the Cost?
First up is your protective foundation. Online, that means a strong anti-virus program and firewall which should be coupled with an equally strong anti-spyware/malware program. While many a vendor will claim supremacy at virus and spyware quashing, no one vendor can kill them all. Use at least two programs. Yes, there is likely to be some overlap but you will end up protected against more threats than any one program can deliver alone. Consider using an online anti-virus/spyware program occasionally as well since some malware can disable or foil anti-virus software loaded on your computer.
Check out A Guide to Free Antivirus Software for a review of some of the most popular free AV programs on the market.
Second, think beyond the computer to the network. "Always use a secure internet connection and become a fan of document encryption," advised Mark Grace, VP of Consumer Business at Absolute Software.
Amazingly, too many people are still using WEP as the default router protection. Change over to WPA and use a strong password. Avoid public hotspots completely if you possibly can. While many people are already aware of the dangers posed by public hotspots, few realize that their dual-mode smartphone may automatically connect to available hotspots unless the Wi-Fi option is disabled.
Make sure your social media sites are also secure connections -- look for the lock icon in the lower right hand corner of the browser and https:// (not just plain old http://) in the URL of sites like Facebook and Twitter. If you don't see the lock there, change your settings on the social media site to the more secure https:// connection.
It's also common for login information to such sites to broadcast unencrypted. For this reason, it is best to avoid using social media at all while connected to public hotspots or on unprotected networks. There are products that can help secure your privacy and security, such as the free Hotspot Shield, which provides a personal virtual private network tunnel or VPN. It also aids users in avoiding censorship and not just in what you post or broadcast. Yes, if the network throttles the connection by banning access to high-bandwidth apps such as Skype or Netflix, Hotspot Shield can give you unfettered access anyway.
But don't make the mistake of thinking all identity theft occurs online. In fact, it's actually just as common, if not more so, to have your identity stolen offline. Sure, you know about dumpster diving and hopefully you already know to shred your correspondence before discarding it. But, unfortunately, that's not the end of the threat. Human spies lurk everywhere.
"Make sure that when writing or accessing sensitive information there is no one watching over your shoulder," advises Sorin Mustaca, data security expert with Avira. "This applies also to surveillance cameras installed in many public places." And it applies to waiters who can record your credit card info (right down to that nifty three digit security code on the back) before returning the card to your table with a receipt for you to sign which then gives them a copy of your signature.
Don't think writing a check is any more secure than a card though.
"All of the information on a check, such as your name, signature, address and other information, can be used by thieves to steal your identity," warned Frank Abagnale, the inspiration behind the hit movie Catch Me if You Can and a consultant with identity protection company PrivacyGuard.
Check your credit scores regularly to catch theft sooner rather than later. But even that is closing the barn door after the horse escapes. "Get a credit freeze," advised Siciliano. "This is a great way to help prevent new account fraud. But, by itself, a credit freeze is not enough."
Lock your mailbox and opt out of junk mail and preapproved credit card offers, he added. "This can be done at OptOutPrescreen.com," he said. "However, even if you opt out of new offers, others will still arrive. It's inevitable."
ID theft score
If, after all this, you're still uncertain of your risk for identity theft, you can use a service such as MyID.com theft score. The score is a numeric three digit indicator that helps a person understand their relative risk for identity theft, given a variety of factors calculated by MyID's proprietary algorithm.
"By monitoring millions of transactions related to identity across the same network accessed by financial institutions, creditors and credit card companies, MyID can help a person quantify whether their activity may put them at increased risk for identity theft," explained Denise Terry, senior director of Marketing at MyID.com.
MyID alerts subscribers via text message and email if new accounts opened in their name are detected within the MyID Identity Network. "New accounts not recognized by the subscriber may signal possible identity theft, and can quickly be addressed to prevent further damage with the help of identity support experts," said Terry.
Believe it or not, when all is said and done, none of it is enough -- not alone and not in combination. However, doing little to nothing simply isn't an option. Not only can identity theft bring you to financial ruin it can also land you in prison. Criminals love to assume a different identity while committing a crime. You may be innocent but still end up doing time.
A prolific and versatile writer, Pam Baker's published credits include numerous articles in leading publications including, but not limited to: Institutional Investor magazine, CIO.com, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers. She has also authored several analytical studies on technology and eight books. Baker also wrote and produced an award-winning documentary on paper-making. She is a member of the National Press Club (NPC), Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and the Internet Press Guild (IPG).