10 Things to Do to Avoid Identity Theft

If major corporations can be hacked, surely you can, too, right? Luckily, there are some very easy things you can do to deter cyberthieves.

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1. Before making a financial transaction, look for the two things that tell you a website is safe.

First thing's first: Look for the letters "HTTPS" -- S for "Secure" -- at the beginning of the URL, or web address.

Second: Also look for a closed yellow padlock icon, either next to the URL box, or at the bottom of your browser window, says Eva Velasquez, CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center. (Note that the 'S' may not appear until you move to the "order" page on the website.)

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2. Use credit cards, not debit cards, for online shopping.

"They offer better fraud protection than debit cards, plus they are not usually linked directly to your bank account," says Bill Carey of RoboForm, a password management system. Debit cards used as credit cards are fine, too, but you need be positive it's being run as such. No matter which you choose, always review your statements regularly for unauthorized purchases.

3. Don't click the "unsubscribe" link on your spam e-mails.

Too often, this simply lets spammers know that your e-mail address is active, and so they send you more, Carey says. More spam means more potential security problems.

4. Don't store your credit card info with a retailer for future use.

It may be convenient, but the more places you have your financial information saved online, the more vulnerable you are.

5. Hackproof your passwords.

Use full sentences, including spaces and punctuation, when possible, and don't use the same ones more than once. Better yet, get a password management program, such as LastPass or KeePass, which automatically creates and manages super-strong passwords for all of your accounts.

6. Strengthen the answers to your security questions.

Rather than giving them your mother's true maiden name, pick a nonsensical standby answer, such as "Tablecloth." No one can find that by combing your background information!

7. Keep your computer's software up-to-date.

Especially that for antivirus programs and your browser, such as Internet Explorer or Google Chrome, says Neal O'Farrell of The Identity Theft Council. "Many of today's attacks take advantage of security vulnerabilities in your software that you never got around to fixing," he says. "Accept all legitimate updates immediately, and if your device allows for automatic updates, make sure that's switched on, too."

8. Beware of e-mail links and attachments.

It's called phishing: Phony e-mails designed to trick you into opening links and attachments, which then help cyberthieves steal personal information off your computer. Clues include poor spelling, threats of account closures, false receipts and shipping confirmations, and slightly "off" representations of major companies. Unless you are completely sure a link or attachment is genuine, delete. Unsure? Open a separate browser to search for the company's customer service information, then call them directly.

9. Mind your snail mail.

Don't forget that identity theft can still begin on paper. In fact, O'Farrell warns that it's still one of the top favorites for identity thieves. He recommends collecting your mail as soon after delivery as possible, and sending anything containing sensitive information from a post office or mailbox, rather than leaving it out to be collected.

10. If you fall victim to identity theft, take action immediately.

The sooner you stop it, the less damage you'll need to repair. Contacting the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center is a great place to start: (888) 400-5530; idtheftcenter.org.

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