When most people think of identity theft, they picture shady computer hackers stealing information online, or robbers using cards and information from stolen wallets and purses. While such instances certainly do take place, an easier and more common vulnerability is often overlooked: the mail.
Most people receive bank and investment account statements, insurance information, new checks, bills, and unsolicited credit card offers through the mail nearly every day. Since the vast majority of standalone mailboxes are not locked or secured in any way, it is trivial for would be identity thieves to steal this mail. If they are smart enough to leave a few obviously personal letters, you might never even know they took anything.
Armed with the information from such a haul, thieves can apply for credit in your name and go on a spending spree. Using account numbers and other personal information, they also may be able to gain access to your bank accounts and leave you with nothing but bounced checks and a horrible mess to untangle with the bank.
Now that you are aware of the risk, what can you do to protect yourself?
1. Opt out of unsolicited credit offers. Call 1-888-567-8688 to prevent companies from sending you pre-approved offers.
2. Notify the credit bureaus that you do not want your personal information shared for promotional purposes. This limits access to your information and contributes to reduced mail. Write a letter with your request and send it to each of the three credit reporting agencies:
PO Box 740123
Atlanta, GA 30374-0123
701 Experian Parkway
Allen, TX 75013
Name Removal Option
P.O. Box 505
Woodlyn, PA 19094
3. Sign up for online statements and notifications from your banks, credit cards, and investments. Having this information delivered online prevents mail thieves from having the chance to take it. Online financial services are very secure, as long as you select a strong password and don’t write it down for others to find.
4. Check your credit report at least annually. You are entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each of the three agencies each year. I recommend getting them separately, about 4 months apart. This allows you to check more frequently without having to pay for a credit monitoring service.
5. For any statements or information that you cannot access online, know when to expect them, so you can tell if they are late or not received.
6. If for some reason you need to deal with sensitive or personal information through the mail frequently, consider getting a post office box. The security can be well worth the small annual fee.
7. Never select passwords or pin numbers from information that might be contained on your statements or other mail. Names, birthdays, and segments of account or social security numbers should never be used, even if you mix and match. These are the first things thieves use when trying to access your accounts. Instead, choose words or numbers that have meaning for you but would be difficult to guess, and add numbers and/or symbols.
Bonus: Shred personal information when you are finished with it. While this won’t prevent theft from the mailbox, it will at least prevent “dumpster diving”, another favorite tactic among ID thieves.
By using these steps to reduce the amount of sensitive mail you receive, and securing the mail you do receive, you can take your mailbox out of the ID thieves arsenal.