Identity theft is a serious problem in our modern world, requiring its victims to devote hours of work--and often hundreds of dollars--to undo the damage. Luckily, there are simple steps you can take to avoid risking identity theft, and several of them will help you get more organized, too. Use these tips to keep your identity in the right hands: your own.
Buy a cross-cut shredder. These machines cut paper into small, confetti-like pieces, rather than long strips, and make it almost impossible to decipher the information on whatever is shredded; see the Links section to the right of this page for some shredder options.
Deal with the mail. Aim to shred or otherwise destroy any junk mail that contains sensitive information--credit card or mortgage offers, "courtesy checks" from credit providers, and the like--as soon as possible. At the very least, separate your mail into three categories: things you want or need to keep, things that can be directly recycled (circulars, catalogs, etc.), and things that need to be shredded. Set aside a few minutes a week to take care of the shredding.
Keep important documents safe. Never carry things like your Social Security card or birth certificate in a purse or wallet, and make sure to store documents with sensitive information (financial account numbers, SSNs, and so on) in a secure spot.
Review your bank and credit card statements soon after you receive them. Keeping close tabs on the activity in your financial accounts will make it easier to detect suspicious transactions. Also, hold on to your charge card and bank receipts until you can compare them against your statements, and then destroy the receipts you don't need for recordkeeping or tax purposes.
Shred all sensitive information. Any piece of paper with your social security number, your full credit card or bank account number, your PINs or passwords, or other identifying information belongs in the shredder. Old bank statements, credit card statements, receipts, checks, and passports should all be shredded.
Check your credit report on a regular basis. US citizens are entitled to a credit report from each of the three credit bureaus--Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion--each year; visit the Annual Credit Report site (see the Links section on the right side of this page) to request your report. If you see something unfamiliar, inaccurate, or suspicious in a report, immediately contact the credit bureaus.
Get your paperwork organized. Finally, take the time to create a simple, effective storage system for important papers like credit card statements, bank statements, insurance documents, mortgage papers, and identity documents (Social Security cards, birth certificates, passports, etc.). While effective filing on its own won't deter identity thefts, it will make it easier to keep current on what's happening with your accounts, and will put at your fingertips much of the information you might need if you ever did have to investigate suspicious transactions or instances of fraud.
As with many other disasters, identity theft tends to be something most of us give very little thought to before we're faced with it. Using the tips above and a healthy dose of common sense, though, can help you keep potential thieves at bay. There's only one you, after all, and that's exactly the way it should be.