10 Ways to Keep Your Private Info Private


In a world where so many of us share everything from the birth of a child to our weight loss goals on social media, privacy might seem like a moot point. But the reality is, growing identity theft threats make safeguarding personal details more important than ever.

The good news is, there are simple things you can do to keep yourself safe. It is just about paying attention to where your personal information could leak out, and plugging the holes. (See also: Your Credit Card May Be Sharing Your Private Info)

1. Destroy Unneeded Paper Documents

Any junk mail that contains a credit offer. Old documents with your signature, Social Security number, date of birth, or other identifying details. Old tax returns. Convenience checks from credit cards. These are some of the most sensitive items that you should never dispose of without shredding. Buy a crosscut shredder or take your documents to a business shredder to destroy, or burn the paper in your fireplace.

2. Safeguard Your Mail

The U.S. Post Office recommends that you pick up your mail promptly after delivery and always put the mail on hold if you go out of town. Some folks take it a step further by investing in a locking mailbox or renting a post office box away from their residence. Remember to protect outgoing mail as well, by dropping it into a secure mailbox or handing it to the carrier, instead of leaving it out for the carrier to pick up.

3. Be Wary of Online Forms

You may be asked for your name, email address, home address, phone number, date of birth, and other personal information many times a day on the Internet. And often, it's legitimate to share that information — for instance, when signing up for a food delivery service. But when asked for personal details, ask yourself who's behind the request — a reputable brand, or a company you've never heard of? Is the sign-up really necessary?

4. Don't Overshare on Social Media

First of all, know who you're sharing with when you post something on social media. On Facebook, you can choose to share a post with the public, with all your friends, or only a subgroup of friends. Personally, I don't know all the people I've accepted friend requests from very well. So most of the things I post — especially potentially compromising information such as an upcoming surgery or vacation — are only shared with a select group of close friends and relatives.

Second, there are some things you don't want to share with anyone — not even relatives. Hundreds of thousands of people each year have their IDs stolen by someone they know. Never post a photo of personal documents, like a new passport or even a kid's report card. Beware of documents that may be visible in the background of snapshots, like that tax form stuck to your fridge with a magnet.

5. Conduct Periodic Audits of Your Online Info

This sounds complicated, but it's actually easy. First, Google your full name. Look yourself up on "people search" websites, especially FamilyTreeNow, which allows people to search for personal data without paying or signing up for an account. A lot of the info you will find on these sites are public records, but that doesn't mean you want to make it easy for potential data thieves to aggregate all public info about you for free. Opt out of all such sites, which may take some time clicking around, but is worth it.

6. Be Suspicious of Everyone Who Handles Your Information

Your children's school and your doctor's office probably aren't out to rob you, so you might feel comfortable sharing any information they ask for. Here's the thing, though: Do you know if they're storing those documents securely or disposing of them properly when no longer needed? (See also: 7 Simple Ways to Protect Yourself From Medical Records Theft)

One way to limit your exposure to this risk is to give as little information as possible. Yes, every school form might ask for your child's medical insurance ID, but is it really necessary? At the doctor's office, decline to write your Social Security number on paperwork. They don't need it on every piece of paper in your file.

Another way to limit your exposure is to ask staff how papers are handled and secured, and to push for better safety in the likely event that there's room for improvement.

7. Keep Your Computer Clean

Logging onto bank, mortgage, and credit accounts to pay bills, check balances, and transfer money is incredibly convenient. It can also be incredibly dangerous if you do it on a compromised computer. Be wary of what you click, whether it's an app you download or a link or attachment in email, because if your computer gets a virus, it could do more than slow it down. Hackers can use such Trojan horses to slip a keystroke logging program onto your computer, recording everything you type, including usernames and passwords. Never log onto banking and other sensitive sites using public Wi-Fi connections.

Besides avoiding clicking dodgy links and regularly scanning your computer for malware, you can safeguard your online banking data by regularly changing your passwords, and by making your passwords really hard to guess.

8. Limit What You Carry Around With You

Stealing your purse or wallet is another way thieves can get ahold of your private information. Don't carry anything more than you need — one or two credit cards and your driver's license should do. Leave your Social Security card at home. (See also: 5 Things to Never Keep in Your Wallet)

9. Opt Out of Junk Mail

You can sign up to stop credit and insurance companies from sending you preapproved offers, which could be used to take out accounts in your name. (See also: How to Remove Yourself From Mailing Lists and Eliminate Junk Mail)

10. Don't Get Caught by a Phisher

Beware of impostors asking for your bank password or other information. You may already know that if you get an alarming email purportedly from your bank, you can go straight to your bank website and log on, or call them, instead of clicking the link.

But increasingly, phishers are reaching victims by phone as well. So many people have been tricked into installing malicious software or giving up credit card numbers by fake "Microsoft tech support" calls that Microsoft set up a page warning the public about them. The Internal Revenue Service has set up a similar warning about criminals who call posing as IRS agents and ask for money or personal data. (See also: Beware These 6 Phony IRS Calls and Emails)

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