Given all the data breaches and hacks these days, it's best to assume that your personal data has already been exposed and is in the hands of criminals – either preparing to sell your data to other criminals or planning to use it themselves. However, there's more to good identity hygiene than just protecting your identity from online thieves. Identity theft protection is a mindset, as well as a daily struggle.

Do you have the identity protection mindset? If not, consider these eight tips to help you acquire it.

Protect Your Social Security Number (SSN) – You will have different addresses in life, you will have different account numbers, you will live in different places – but generally, you will always have the same Social Security number. (You may be able to change your SSN in some cases of identity theft, but your old number is linked to the new number, not destroyed.)

Treat your Social Security number like the precious commodity that it is. Be very careful in giving out your number and make sure that the receiving party has a good reason to have it.

Take Passwords and Privacy Settings Seriously – Sure, it's a headache to use strong, complex passwords, change them regularly, and maintain high privacy settings on your online accounts. It's a lot bigger headache to be a victim of identity fraud.

Be Cautious with Social Media – Social media sites are a great place to interact with friends and let them know about details of your life. They are also great places to post personal information that can assist thieves inadvertently – or let thieves know that you are out of town so that they can take advantage of the opportunity.

Review Your Credit Report and Credit Card Statements –Make sure that you regularly check your credit report for erroneous charges or fake accounts created with your identity. You can check your credit score and read your credit report for free within minutes using Credit Manager by MoneyTips. Similarly, check your credit card statements for unfamiliar charges that suggest an unauthorized person is using your credit card data.

Be Careful with Your Mail – Mailboxes are prime targets for criminals, because most are left unattended with sensitive mail for at least part of the day. Don't leave your outgoing bills in the mailbox – the raised flag just notifies criminals that you have something to steal. For incoming mail, consider a locking or spring-loaded mailbox that denies thieves easy access. Shred any unwanted mail containing personal and account information.

Limit Data Use in Public – Do you leave your credit or debit card out in plain sight while making payments in stores? Do you fill out deposit slips at the bank with your account information available to anyone looking over your shoulder? Do you forget to cover the keyboard as you type in your PIN at your local ATM? Do you connect to websites or apps through unsecure public Wi-Fi spots and transmit any personal information? All of these actions give alert thieves direct access to your sensitive data.

File Your Taxes Early – Tax fraud criminals that have your personal information will try to file a false refund in your name as soon as possible, before you even realize that your information has been compromised. Beat them to the punch by electronically filing your return as soon as you have all the required forms and information.

Spread the Word – How often do you get emails and solicitations just because your email address was in the address book of one of your friends whose accounts were hacked? You can't force everybody to take the same level of protective measures that you do, but you can remind them of the importance of doing so.

Get the idea? Once you start looking at all of the opportunities for personal information theft, the mindset naturally follows. No strategy is foolproof, but a good identity hygiene regimen can greatly reduce your odds of becoming a victim of fraud and dealing with months or even years of painstakingly restoring your credit.

If you would like to prevent identity theft, check out our credit monitoring service.


Photo ©iStockphoto.com/Petegar

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