Nine ways to protect against identity theft

Once identity theft occurs, it can be a huge challenge to get life back to normal. Prevention is the best policy and these nine tips can help.

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    This photo taken March 22, 2013, shows the exterior of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) building in Washington. Identity theft is a huge problem with IRS implications.
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Identity theft is a serious crime that can be ruinous to your finances and credit score. Even if you catch a breach quickly, resolving the damage may be costly and time-consuming.

Fortunately, you can take steps to protect yourself and your sensitive information. Here are nine ways you can minimize the risk of becoming a victim of identity theft or fraud:

1. Shred your documents. Don’t toss bank statements and credit card receipts in the trash. Dispose of them using a cross-cut shredder or shredding service.

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2. Strengthen your passwords. Use random combinations of letters, numbers and special characters. Create different passwords for each account, and change them frequently.

3. Check your credit reports. You’re entitled to one free credit report every year from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus. Request one report every four months and review it for suspicious or incorrect information.

4. Guard your Social Security number. Avoid sharing it when it’s not absolutely necessary, and don’t keep it, or your Social Security card, in your wallet.

5. Be smart about social media. Consider leaving personal details, such as your birthday or address, off your profiles. Strengthen your privacy settings and be cautious about whom you accept as a connection.

6. Secure your phone. Lock your device with a password, turn off Bluetooth when you’re not using it, and be cautious when downloading apps — especially free versions of popular apps, which may contain malware.

7. Know the signs of phishing. Watch out for emails, links or unsolicited phone calls, asking for your personal information.

8. Monitor your financial statements. Report any suspicious activity in your bank and credit card accounts as soon as you notice it.

9. Keep your mail safe. Swiping your mail is one of the easiest ways for a thief to steal your identity. Consider using a locked mailbox or P.O. box, and have the post office hold your mail if you go out of town.

Following these guidelines can help you keep sensitive information private. But remember, you must be proactive to protect your personal information. These tips won’t be much help after your identity is stolen.

This article first appeared at NerdWallet.

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