With the steady stream of news about cyber attacks and data breaches, it’s easy to forget that someone physically stealing your personal documents can cause you just as much harm. Mailbox theft, burglary, pocket-picking, or even dumpster diving can give a criminal enough information to steal your identity and make your life miserable. You can’t prevent data breaches, but there are plenty of simple steps you can take to protect your personal information at home and on the road.
Safe at Home
Your mailbox is the easiest target for a thief aiming to steal personal documents, so get a locking mailbox or a PO box at your local post office, and pick up your mail promptly. That will protect valuable documents such as financial statements and medical cards, as well as deliveries of credit cards, boxes of bank checks or tax refund checks.
Once documents make it past the mailbox, the trick is to minimize what you keep. Shred credit card and other financial offers you don’t want. (You can opt out of these offers at optoutprescreen.com.) Don’t keep financial statements longer than a year or two, and shred the oldest one as each new one comes in. If you have a large volume of old documents to shred, take them to a secure shredding service or find out whether your city or other neighborhood organization offers those services on a free “shred day.” Also destroy labels from discarded prescription bottles so criminals can’t use the information to get refills of controlled medications using your insurance.
For documents you need to keep, get a locking file cabinet for financial records and a safe for valuable documents such as your passport and Social Security card as well as copies of your will, vehicle title, property deeds, or other important documents.
Go Digital, But Carefully
From banks to the Social Security Administration, more organizations are giving you the option of going paperless. Switching to getting statements and doing business online can be safer, especially if you use two-factor authentication such as a password plus touch ID on your mobile phone to protect your account.
Safe on the Go
Sometimes you have to carry personal documents with you, but never carry more than you need. For example, unless you need to present your Social Security card when starting a new job or visiting the DMV, leave your Social Security card and passport at home in the safe.
Never leave a purse or wallet in your car, even if you think they are well-hidden. The glove box can be a tempting place to stash your wallet but thieves know that, too. Keep your wallet or purse locked in a safe place at work and get a padlock for the gym or pool.
When you are asked for personal documents, be prepared to question why they need it and how they will protect your data. Your doctor’s office does need to see your medical card and driver license to confirm your identity, and the rental car company needs to see your driver’s license, but neither of these require your Social Security number. Many businesses use outdated forms requesting information like SSN that is no longer required and most businesses shouldn’t need to see your personal information.