Carnegie Mellon University

Protecting Yourself from Identity Theft

The following tips can help you lower your risk of becoming a victim***:

  1. Protect your Social Security number
  2. Fight phishing - do not take the bait
  3. Keep your identity from getting trashed
  4. Control your personal financial information
  5. Shield your computer from viruses and spyware
  6. Click with caution
  7. Check your bills and bank statements
  8. Stop pre-approved credit offers
  9. Ask questions
  10. Check your credit reports - for free

*** = Adapted from the California Office of Privacy Protection - Top 10 Tips for Identity Theft Protection.


Protect your Social Security number

  Do not carry your Social Security card in your wallet.

If your health plan (other than Medicare) or another card uses your Social Security number, ask the company for a different number.

For more information, visit the Social Security website and read Identity Theft and Your Social Security Number.


Fight phishing - do not take the bait

  Scam artists phish for victims by pretending to be banks, stores or government agencies.  They do this over the phone, in emails and through regular mail.  Do not give out your personal information - unless you made the contact.

Do not believe the number displayed by your phone's Caller ID as they can be easily faked (often called vishing.)  Instead, ask for your case or ticket number and tell them you will call them back.  Then call the publicly listed number for the bank, store or government agency and tell them you are calling in reference to the case or ticket number.

Do not respond to a request to verify your account number or password - unless you made the contact.  Legitimate companies do not request this kind of information in this way.


Keep your identity from getting trashed

  Shred or tear up papers with personal information before you throw them away.

Shred credit card offers and convenience checks that you do not use.


Control your personal financial information

  When choosing passwords for your financial accounts, avoid using your mother's real maiden name, any other personal information you might have shared online or facts about you available through public records.  Instead substitute something more private when prompted for your mother's maiden name or request an alternate security question.

Federal laws requires your bank and other financial services companies to tell you about their information sharing practices and give you the opportunity to opt out of having your personal financial information shared.


Shield your computer from viruses and spyware

  Protect your personal information on your computer.  Use strong passwords: with at least eight characters, including a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols, easy for you to remember, but difficult for others to guess.

Use firewall, virus and spyware protection software that you update regularly.

Steer clear of spyware. Download free software only from sites you know and trust.  Do not install software without knowing what it is.

Do not click on links in web pop-up windows and in unsolicited e-mail and instant messages.

For step by step instructions, see our Secure Your Computer guides.


Click with caution

  When shopping online, check out a Web site before entering your credit card number or other personal information.  Read the privacy policy and look for opportunities to opt out of information sharing.  (If there is no privacy policy posted, beware! Shop elsewhere.)

Only enter personal information on secure Web pages with https in the address bar and a padlock symbol at the bottom of the browser window.  These are signs that your information will be encrypted or scrambled, protecting it from malicious eavesdroppers.


Check your bills and bank statements

  Sign up for online access to your credit cards and bank accounts and carefully check them at least weekly for unauthorized charges or withdrawals.

If your credit card company or bank does not offer online access, then open your credit card bills and bank statements right away and carefully check for unauthorized charges or withdrawals.

Report any unauthorized charges or withdrawals immediately.

Call if bills do not arrive on time. It may mean that someone has changed contact information to hide fraudulent charges.


Stop pre-approved credit offers

  Stop most pre-approved credit card offers.  They make a tempting target for identity thieves who steal your mail.

Have your name removed from credit bureau marketing lists.  Call toll-free 888-5OPTOUT (888-567-8688).


Ask questions

  Ask questions whenever you are asked for personal information that seems inappropriate for the transaction.

Ask how the information will be used and if it will be shared.

Ask how it will be protected.

Explain that you are concerned about identity theft.  If you are not satisfied with the answers, consider going somewhere else.


Check your credit reports - for free

  One of the best ways to protect yourself from identity theft is to monitor your credit history.  You can get one free credit report every year from each of the three national credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

Request all three reports at once, or be your own no-cost credit-monitoring service.  Just spread out your requests, ordering from a different bureau every four months.  (More comprehensive monitoring services from the credit bureaus cost from $44 to over $100 per year.)

Order your free annual credit reports by phone, toll-free, at 1-877-322-8228, or online at AnnualCreditReport.  Or you can mail in an order form.

Additionally, if in the last 60 days you have been denied credit, housing or employment due to your credit rating or adverse action has been taken against your credit record, under the Fair Credit Reporting Act you may be entitled to a free credit report from the bureau used to make the decision or to which the adverse action was reported.  Contact the appropriate national credit bureau: Equifax, Experian or Trans Union.