victim of identity theftHow safe is your identity? According to Javelin’s 2014 Identity Fraud Report, 13.1 million people fell victim to identity theft in 2013, and with the Target and Heartbleed breaches, that number is guaranteed to go up in 2014. Anyone can become a victim of identity theft if they are not careful, which is why it’s important to know what steps you can take to protect yourself.

How can I avoid becoming a victim of identity theft?

There’s no way to prevent identity theft, however there are still some steps you can take to reduce your chances of falling victim to this crime.

1. Monitor bank statements regularly

It’s essential that you are actively monitoring your bank statements when you receive them each month. This not only pertains to your checking and savings accounts, but also any credit card or investment accounts that you receive a statement for. Instead of just shredding or throwing away the statement, take the statement out of the envelope and go through each of the transactions. Make sure that you were the one to complete all of the transactions and report any unfamiliar transactions as potential fraud. Even if the amount is less than $5, it’s still essential that you report it. Identity thieves often “test” the credit or debit card to make sure it still works before they complete a larger transaction.

2. Be aware of who has access to your personal information

Throughout our lives we provide a lot of personal information to a variety of people and businesses — including doctor’s offices, grocery stores, employers, retail or department stores and others. Even though most of these exchanges are innocent, it’s still essential for you to make sure you’re aware of which companies and people store your personal information as well as exactly who has access to that stored information. Before you provide any personal information to anyone, you need to ask these questions: How is my information stored? Who will have access to my information? What’s your privacy policy? Why do you need this personal information? After the company or person responds to all of your questions, you can decide if you’re comfortable providing your information to them.

It’s also important to note that you should ask a lot of questions whenever a company or doctor’s office is requesting your social security number. In most instances, there is really no reason why companies or your doctor’s office needs your social security number, and if you just leave that blank on any forms, they usually won’t even bother you for it. That being said, if they are requiring you to give them your social security number, you should require them to explain exactly why they need it and how they will use and store it.

In addition to being aware of who you provide personal information to, you should also make sure you limit the amount of personal information you post on social media as well as verify that your information is only available to “friends” or people who you know in real life.

3. Only enter personal information on secure websites

Anytime you’re about to enter personal information or access a website that contains personal information, such as a banking website, you’ll want to make sure you’re using a secure website. There are a couple of ways you can verify that a site is secure. The first is to check that the URL begins with “HTTPS,” which stands for “Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure.” It means your information is being encrypted, or changed into coding so that only the intended recipient can open and access it.

The other way that you can verify the safety of a website is to look for a color change in the address bar. If you’re using a secure web browser — such as the popular Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari — it will let you know that a website is secure by displaying a lock to the left of the URL and/or highlighting the URL in green.

4. Don’t trust anyone asking for personal information via email or phone

If you ever receive an email telling you that your bank account or information has been breached and that you must click on a URL in the email to fix the issue, you should make sure you do not click on any links and that you mark the email as spam because it’s most likely a phishing scam. Similarly, anytime you receive a call from someone claiming that they are a representative of your bank, health insurance, doctor’s office or any other company and request any of your personal information, you should not refuse their request for information and immediately hang up the phone.

If you feel that the email or call was legitimate, you should still not provide any personal information or click on anything and instead visit the trusted site or call a trusted number for the company or business to see if it’s legit.

5. Protect your devices

On top of keeping your personal information private, you should also make sure you keep your devices — such as your smartphone, laptop and tablet — protected from viruses, malware and spyware. The easiest way to do this is to download Internet security software onto whichever device you’re trying to protect. This software is designed to protect your computer from any malicious software, spyware or viruses as well as alert you of any potential threat to your privacy or information stored on your computer. If you visit a suspicious website, the software will alert you before you are put at risk. And, with most Internet security software, you can protect up to three computers for less than $100/year. Read our Internet security software reviews to learn about the top-rated services and find the best service for your devices.

6. Shred all documents with any personal information

Whether it’s an expired insurance card or credit card offer that you received in the mail, you need to make sure you’re destroying the documents and not just tossing them in the garbage. By shredding documents containing personal information, you’re guaranteeing that no one can steal any of your personal information if they dig through your trash. If you need to purchase a shredder, it’s best that you get a cross-cut or micro-cut shredder since these types of cuts completely destroy the document, making it impossible for anyone to put it back together.

7. Monitor your credit reports

The final step to protecting yourself from identity theft is to monitor your credit. Even though you can get one free credit report each year from AnnualCreditReport.com, only checking your credit reports once per year is not enough to catch any fraudulent activity. This is because too much time will pass by before you check your report again, leaving you open to potential fraud throughout the time that you weren’t able to check the reports.

Instead of relying on the annual access to your credit reports, you should opt to take action into your own hands by considering signing up for an identity theft protection service. These services monitor the activity on all three of your credit reports each day and alert you in the event that anything changes or is added to any of your reports. In addition to credit report monitoring, these services also provide you with access to your credit reports and scores so you can comb through your reports and make sure everything is accurate. If there is any inaccurate activity on any of your three credit reports — Experian, Equifax or TransUnion — the service will provide you with the tools you need to request the removal of these errors.

On top of providing complete credit report monitoring and complete access to your credit reports, identity theft protection services also take additional steps to protect your identity by making sure your personal information is not being sold, traded or used by identity thieves on the Internet black market or public records. If any of your information is found, the service will immediately alert you and provide you with steps that you need to take to protect yourself.

The best part about identity theft protection services, is that most of the services offer some sort of free trial that allows you to test the service prior to signing up. Visit our identity theft protection reviews to see which service will best fit your needs and budget.

Bottom line, there is no way to guarantee that you won’t fall victim to identity theft, yet any step that you take towards protecting your personal information can help you lessen the chance of being a victim of identity theft.