Protecting your identity has never been more important, yet many people don't know where to start. Your identity may be your most valuable possession, and you need to take precautions to keep it safe.
In this article...
Over the past few years there have been some high profile data breaches, and in each case, a significant amount of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) was leaked. These breaches impacted millions of people, and there's a high chance that much of your personal information is now available to criminals.
Oftentimes you may not even realize that a breached company had your data - they may be companies that were given access to your data by another company or organization. This was the case with the recent breach that resulted in the theft of personal information for nearly 28 million Texas drivers - the breach was from a third party company called Vertafore.
In far too many cases, there are very few serious repercussions against the offending companies or organizations. The bottom line is that YOU have to take responsibility to keep your identity secure.
In this blog post, I'm going to outline some basic precautions that you can take to help protect your identity - particularly around securing your credit report. The guide is aimed at adults in the US.
It's a long post, but there's a lot to cover if you want to stay safe.
Why RVers are more at risk
As full-time RVers, we're in a group of people that are arguably even more at risk of identity theft. So while this guide is useful to a much broader audience, I hope that it is of particular use to our fellow full-time RVers. There are several characteristics that full-time RVers share that make them potentially more vulnerable.
Many of us rely on mailboxes (such as the Escapees Mail Service) to receive mail on the road, and we often wait weeks between forwarding mail. That's potentially time during which an identity thief could be spending credit obtained in your name before you see the suspicious letters telling you about new accounts that have been opened.
Some mail services (like Escapees) will scan the envelopes on arrival, so always be sure to keep an eye out for suspicious mail from companies you don't recognize - it could just be letting you know about that new account that "you" supposedly opened. Better yet, sign up for a mail scanning service so you can see the contents of the mail without having to wait to have it forwarded on.
Think carefully about how you dispose of mail. Shredders are commonplace in offices and homes nowadays, but are bulky appliances in an RV. Places like FedEx Print & Ship Centers often offer a shredding service - don't just put sensitive documents in the trash!
There's also the topic of physical security.
It's far harder to install a strong safe or find a secure hiding place for documents and valuables in an RV. Perhaps you have original documents, or a USB key or hard drive with unencrypted backups on it. These could be very valuable to a thief if your RV is broken into.
Before getting started
I'm not going to deny it: some of these things will take time, will be frustrating to get set up, and will feel like an inconvenience.
I agree. But the reality is that the way the system is set up, there are security vulnerabilities and loopholes that we must protect ourselves from. Ask anyone who has been a victim of identity theft, and they'll tell you that the time invested in preventing identity fraud is nothing compared to the amount of time it takes to clear up the mess afterwards!
Each step in this guide will incrementally improve your security by a bit more, so don't feel you have to do everything at once. But, the more of these things you can do, the safer you'll be!
I highly recommend documenting your progress through this guide - keep notes of exactly what you did, who you spoke to, what was said and when. Trust me, much of the system is designed to be as frustrating as possible to secure, so having a clear record of what you did will be invaluable!
Lastly, this is not a foolproof or comprehensive guide. Protecting your identity is a moving goalpost - there are many things beyond the scope of this article that can be done. But, I hope to highlight a few of the more basic precautions to help keep you just a little bit safer, and hopefully stop you becoming a victim.
Signing up for mySocialSecurity
The Social Security Administration (SSA) is responsible for issuing your Social Security Number (SSN) - one of the most sensitive pieces of data. mySocialSecurity is the SSA's online portal where you can monitor your contributions, benefits, etc.
You should sign up for an account on mySocialSecurity for two main reasons:
- To stop someone else fraudulently signing up with your data;
- To confirm all your data is correct and that nobody else has used your Social Security Number to claim benefits or sign up for work.
You can sign up online by going to the mySocialSecurity website and clicking Create an Account. Once you've created the account, be sure to set up two-factor authentication! They will also send you a friendly reminder each year to log in and check everything still looks OK.
Bottom line: if you don't sign up for the account, someone else might! Plus, you'll need this account for some of the other steps later on.
Protecting your Credit Report
In the US, there are three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. You will have a credit report (not the same as your credit score) with each of these agencies, and prospective lenders will use one or more of these services to assess your credit-worthiness.
To protect your identity, you want to review your reports for suspicious activity, and prevent unauthorized access of your reports.
Credit Report Fraud Alert
Since some of the next steps may take a little time, we can start by taking a basic precaution - adding a fraud alert to the credit reports to say that you may be a victim of identity theft and prospective lenders should take additional steps to verify your identity.
The good news is that you only need to add it with one of the credit agencies, and they will pass the alert to the others on your behalf. To add the fraud alert with Experian, start by going to their Fraud Alert Center. Choose "Add a fraud alert" and then "Temporary fraud alert (1 year)". Finally, fill out the information in the "Add a fraud alert using your personal information" section, and submit the form.
It's not perfect (it's just an advisory note, and lenders may miss it) but it's better than nothing and only takes a few minutes. And as the name suggests, it only lasts 1 year.
Bottom line: this simple, 5-minute task will buy you some time to get everything else sorted.
Review Credit Report
Every adult in the US is entitled under Federal Law to one free credit report each year from each of the three credit reporting agencies. Due to COVID, this has been increased and every adult is now entitled to one free credit report from each agency every week!
However, be careful where you access them. The correct place is AnnualCreditReport.com - not one of the myriad of similar-sounding websites.
This is a completely free service, but the credit agencies will try to upsell other services to you during the flow - such as viewing your credit score (different, and not necessary). If you find yourself being asked for billing information or to pay for something, you've gone wrong!
Once you have your reports, check them carefully for any signs of suspicious activity or errors. If you spot anything, contact the credit agency immediately to rectify the situation. And remember, check your credit reports as often as you are entitled - it may be the first indication you get that someone has applied for credit using your identity.
Bottom line: if you don't check your credit report for errors and suspicious activity, you won't know if you've been compromised!
Credit Report Freeze
A freeze is the big brother of the fraud alert. If you place a freeze on your credit report, this prevents the credit reporting agency from releasing the report to a prospective lender without your permission.
Unlike a fraud alert, you will need to contact each of the three credit agencies individually to request a freeze. Here are the links you'll need:
- Equifax: https://www.equifax.com/personal/credit-report-services/
- Experian: https://www.experian.com/freeze/center.html
- TransUnion: https://www.transunion.com/credit-freeze
Also, unlike a fraud alert, there may be a charge for freezing your credit report. It varies by state - in some states like Indiana or the Carolinas it's free, but others like Texas may be $10 or more per agency. Still, I'd recommend paying the $30 for the peace of mind it brings!
When you freeze your credit report, you will be issued with a PIN. Keep this safe as you'll need it when you want to temporarily lift the freeze - as you'll need to do when you legitimately apply for credit. Remember this when you want to apply for a mortgage or car loan! Also, be aware that there may be a charge to temporarily lift the freeze - again, this varies by state.
A credit freeze may not be free and can be inconvenient to set up (and remember to lift when necessary) but it's much less inconvenient than having your identity stolen, and it's one of the most effective measures you can take.
It's also worth noting that a freeze does NOT affect your credit score and will last indefinitely (unless you remove it).
Bottom line: $30 is a lot less hassle than having your identity stolen!
Identity Theft Report
If you've completed the steps above, you've done a pretty good job of locking down your credit report and implementing a process to regularly check your credit report for errors or suspicious activity.
But, there is still more you can do if you're willing.
The FTC has a good guide on how to file an Identity Theft Report. This is a report that your data has been stolen - you do NOT need to prove that your data has been misused. Since data has been leaked about almost everyone in the US, it shouldn't be hard to get but if the police push back then request a "miscellaneous incident report". Ultimately, all you need is an ID from the police report.
Why would you do this? Well, it affords you a number of additional rights under law:
- Place an extended fraud alert on your credit reports (like the one we added earlier, but it lasts 7 years);
- Remove fraudulent information from your credit report;
- Add and remove credit report freezes with NO fee.
If you added the fraud alert earlier, then that's potentially bought you a little bit of time to go through the process of filing an Identity Theft Report which means you'll not have to pay to freeze your credit report. The choice is yours.
Does this feel overwhelming?
I'm sorry, but this is the reality of the situation. Whether you like it or not, your information is out there, and these are the only ways we have to control it. As arduous and inconvenient as this process might feel, it's trivial in comparison to dealing with the consequences of identity theft.
As I said at the start of the article, you don't have to do this all at once, but make a start, document your progress, and keep chipping away. Each step will incrementally protect you more and more, so something is better than nothing!
Full-time RVers, for the reasons I listed earlier, are arguably more vulnerable than most so I urge our fellow RVers to take heed and follow these basic precautions. But this guide is not specific to RVers, and the steps in here will help to make you safer online regardless of your situation.
Stay safe out there!