“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

Identity theft rings are active in every single state in the U.S. and victimize more than 10 million people every year. On average, a victim of identity theft spends over 600 hours of time and effort to rectify the theft. As many as 25% of identity theft victims are never able to fully restore their identity. An example of identity theft includes when identity thieves open a credit account or checking account in your name without your knowledge. Another example is using your Social Security Number and other information to secure a loan in your name, transferring the funds to a new account in their name, then cashing out and closing the account. Identity thieves can even get your current credit card numbers and print cards for themselves with your card number and their own name, essentially taking over your account.

As scary as all of that is, there are things you can do to reduce your risk of being an identity theft victim and help protect yourself. Here are some tips to help protect your identity from thieves.

1. Protect your Social Security Number. Never carry your Social Security card with you and never give your number except in essential situations and to authorized persons only, such as a mortgage lender when applying for a home loan.

2. Limit what you carry. Carry only essential cards and identification that you use every day. Don’t carry passports, alternate forms of ID, credit cards you rarely use or other unnecessary items.

3. Change your passwords frequently and make them difficult to guess. Use two unrelated random words, three numbers and some kind of special character to create strong passwords.

4. Secure your personal records. Keep financial records, medical records, insurance records, credit offers and other sensitive information in a secure location in your home. Shred any of these documents you no longer need. Also be sure to shred canceled and expired debit cards, IDs, credit cards and ATM cards.

5. Respond to data breaches. When there has been a data breach that might have affected you, such as the recent Experian data breach, verify if your information might have been compromised. If so, put a freeze on your credit with all three of the major credit bureaus. This will prevent any new credit accounts from being opened in your name but will not stop a thief from leveraging an existing account.

6. Protect your information on computers and mobile devices. Protect your mobile and desktop devices with anti-virus, anti-spyware, anti-phishing and firewalls. Protect your log-in information for your computer and use biometric locks (fingerprints) when possible.

7. Watch over your existing accounts closely. Monitor your accounts for any unusual activity, protect your passwords, refute suspcious charges, regularly review your credit report from all three credit bureaus and reconcile credit card statements regularly to look for unauthorized activity.

8. Be on the lookout for scams and stay current on scamming techniques. For example, if you receive a call or email from the IRS, this is a scam. The IRS will never call you or email you. In fact, if you receive an email claiming to be from the IRS, please forward the email to phishing@irs.gov. Never give suspected scammers any information about you. The only method of contact the IRS uses is physical mail.

Identity theft is a serious crime. It can cause job loss, cost you money, destroy your credit, wreck your finances and cause serious emotional distress. If you believe you have been a victim of identity theft, there are things you can do. First, report the theft to all three credit bureaus, report the theft to all of your creditors and be on the lookout for new accounts opened in your name. Freeze your credit and visit identitytheft.gov for more information on repairing your identity. You might also need to hire an identity theft attorney, depending on the severity of your case.