You may have heard of identity theft, but what does this term really mean? Identity theft is defined as the deliberate assumption of another person’s identity. A criminal, or fraudster, acquires and uses the victim’s personal information, such as a Social Security Number or driver’s license number to take out loans, obtain new credit cards, rent an apartment, make fraudulent purchases and other criminal activities.

Identity theft can create real problems for victims ranging from damage to creditworthiness to creating unknown criminal records that can result in the identity theft victim being wrongly arrested or denied employment after a routine background check.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, there were 15.4 million adult victims of identity theft in the United States in 2016, a 16% increase over 2015*. Identity theft is at an all-time high, and it’s important to be proactive about protecting your identity. While there is no absolute way to prevent identity theft, there are some steps you can take – both offline and online – to help protect yourself.

1. Leave Your Social Security Card at Home

Social Security cards are required for many critical activities including completing job applications, opening bank accounts, and enrolling in higher education, among others. They are also one of the key pieces of information that a fraudster needs to steal your identity. Do not carry your card in your wallet or purse on a daily basis to reduce your chances of the card being lost or stolen.

2. Shred It

Chances are, you receive documents such as bank statements and utility bills in the mail that contain personal information that would be attractive to a fraudster. Before tossing unwanted papers in the recycle bin, shred all documents to protect any personal information.

3. Don’t Click the Link

If you receive an email from what appears to be your bank, or other reputable institution, asking you to provide your Social Security Number or other personal information, this could be a “phishing” email. Phishing is when a fraudster is sending deceptive emails trying to capture personal information. Never send information such as your Social Security Number, credit card number, or user ID/password information through email. Report these emails immediately to your financial institution.

4. Send to Voicemail

Every year, thousands of people lose money – and their identities – to phone scams. Some scammers may seem friendly – calling you by first name and asking about your family. If you did not initiate the call, though, and especially if the caller asks you for identifying information like bank account numbers, hang up and report the call to the Federal Trade Commission.

5. Freeze Your Score

Did you know that you can freeze your credit report with credit bureaus? There is a small fee (usually around $10-$20), but by freezing your credit report, credit issuers will be unable to access your credit history, resulting in a denied credit application for fraudsters who may be applying for credit under your name. If you do not plan on applying for new credit, this may be an option for you to help protect your identity.

6. Choose Strong Passwords

Strong passwords are a critical first line of defense against identity thieves. Make sure you are using hard-to-guess passwords for each of your online accounts, keeping in mind each password should be different. Change your passwords regularly, and when given the option, use two-factor authentication.

7. Set Up Alerts

Many banks and financial institutions offer free alerts to consumers when expensive transactions are made on an account. For example, if you typically do not make purchases above $500 on your credit card, you can set up an alert – usually a text, email, or phone call – to notify you of purchases that go beyond that threshold. Make the purchase? Simply delete the alert. Didn’t make the purchase? Notify your bank immediately.

8. Use Your Lock Screen

Be sure to use the lock screen on your smartphone and other mobile devices, especially when you are in a public place such as a restaurant, gas station, or retail location, where it is more likely for you to misplace your device. In the event you do lose a device, having a lock screen in place will prevent a fraudster from accessing your personal information.

9. Monitor Your Social Life

Social media is now ingrained in our daily lives, and is one of the main ways we keep in touch with family and friends. While social media has helped nurture relationships and build connections, it also can make you vulnerable to identity thieves. Most social media platforms ask for your birth date, marital status, hometown, and other identifying information that can be used to validate a fraudulent identity online. Be mindful of how much information you share on social media sites, and be sure to check your privacy settings on each platform to ensure you are only sharing information with your direct connections.

10. Beware of Free Wi-Fi

Many public places such as coffee shops and libraries offer free Wi-Fi for customers or guests. This amenity is convenient, but it does put you at risk for identity theft. Free Wi-Fi networks often lack the security measures needed to protect personal information. Someone with the right tools – and knowledge – could be accessing your information without your knowledge. If you are on a free Wi-Fi network, avoid any transactions or visiting websites that have your personal information stored.

Identity theft is a real risk in today’s increasingly connected digital world. No one can prevent identity theft completely, but by following these tips you can decrease the chance of your personal information falling into the hands of a fraudster or criminal.

Be Prepared: Get Proactive Identity Theft Protection

In addition to taking the steps above, it’s important to get a partner on your side who can guide you and provide you with peace of mind when it comes to identity theft. Look to SHERPA® for that trusted guidance. SHERPA provides quality identity theft protection that is easy to understand. Plus, we deliver the protection you need at a lower cost than other solutions on the market today. SHERPA Identity Protection offers the highest level of identity theft protection and restoration services. Using leading technology, SHERPA equips you with the tools you need to protect your personal information.

Don’t let your identity be compromised. Sign up for SHERPA Identity Theft Protection today!

*Identity theft statistics according to the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book for January – December 2016.