Can’t remember buying the used car that just showed up on your credit card bill? You’re in good company — Canadians lost a collective $10.9 million due to identity theft in 2009 alone, a year in which one in six Canadians had their personal information stolen. Identity theft is a growing crime — and every year, it gets harder and harder to protect yourself.
But there are some basic steps you should be taking to make sure your information is safe and that your identity remains your own. Here are eight to get you started — feel free to share your tips and experiences in the comments below.
1. Ask questions before giving out your personal information: Always ask how your personal information will be used and if it will be shared. Banks and other financial institutions don’t normally ask you to provide account numbers or other personal information via email — if you’re not sure, call your branch or service provider directly to follow up.
2. Check your credit rating: You can request your full credit report from one of two main credit bureaus on Canada — Equifax Canada and TransUnion Canada. Your credit report will show your credit history for the past six years — if you spot entries that don’t relate to you (i.e., charge accounts you didn’t open) you might be a victim of identify theft. You should notify the credit bureau right away.
3. Guard your mail: Pick up your daily post promptly and don’t leave it hanging around for others to go through. You should also keep close track of your billing cycles — for example, if your monthly phone bill doesn’t show up, follow up directly with the phone company. If your mail is missing, contact Canada Post immediately.
4. Clean out your wallet: Only carry the identification you need in your wallet — leave your social insurance number (SIN) and birth certificate at home. And don’t tote all your credit and bank cards with you all at once — just pack what you need and leave the rest at home in a safe place. You should also remove credit card and bank teller receipts on a regular basis.
5. Shield your PIN: When you’re using an ATM, making sure no one can see you key in your PIN number.
6. Get a paper shredder: Make sure you shred old bills, bank statements or receipts with your personal information on them before throwing them out. You don’t want your garbage bin to sell you out to identity thieves.
7. Use a firewall: A firewall prevents hackers and thieves from accessing any personal information or files on your computer.
8. Toughen up your passwords: Use complex passwords for any credit cards, bank accounts or any other accounts. That means using more characters and mixing in a few numbers or symbols as well. Microsoft has a tool you can use to check how strong your password is.
9. Watch your card: When you’re in a shop or restaurant, keep an eye on your credit or debit card and make sure it’s not being swiped or copied when it’s not in your hands.
10. Act fast if you think you’ve been scammed: If you think you’ve been the victim of identity theft, take action. Call your bank or credit card issuer first if it’s related to your credit cards or account. And contact the proper authorities to report the crime. The RCMP has a list of steps you should take to report identity theft here.
Do you know anyone who has been a victim of identity theft? Share your stories here.
Caroline Cakebread is a Toronto-based financial writer and editor. She’s also a recovering academic and the mother of two kids. Check out her personal finance blog for Chatelaine Your Money.