Your identity is said to be “stolen” when another person uses your personal information to gain benefits that they would not otherwise receive. Your identity can be stolen in a number of ways, from thrown out documents containing personal information to the hacking of computer networks. While not completely preventable, there are many steps you can take to greatly reduce the chance of identity theft happening to you.

Personal information such as your social security number, bank account number, or address and date of birth can be used to steal your identity. This information is often present in physical documents– your checkbook, passport, or social security card. It is important to properly shred any documents with your personal information; thieves are known to sift through dumpsters to find these papers. Another way to prevent identity theft is to not carry your social security card, as a stolen wallet or purse could give thieves plenty of information to falsify documents in your name. Your checks contain personal information, too, and extra caution should be taken to not send them through the mail when possible.

The internet is one of the most popular ways for a criminal to steal an identity. A very easy way to prevent online identity theft is to make strong passwords for all your accounts. A mix of letters (capital and lowercase), numbers, and special characters are recommended. Never use any part of your name or other personal information, such as your date of birth. Although the internet is a source of theft, it can also be a great tool for monitoring your accounts. It is easy to sign up for an online account for your credit card or bank, and even easier to view your purchases. Suspicious transactions can be spotted early and reported for quick investigation.

Being savvy about giving your personal information is the most important piece of protecting your identity. Many people fall for “phishing” scams, in which a thief pretends to be someone else to get you to give up your personal information. This may include emails that look similar to bank emails, or phone calls asking for your credit card number. You can always contact your Credit Card Company or bank to verify emails or phone calls.

Finally, any suspected identity theft should be reported to the proper agencies. The affected institution, often your bank or credit card company, should be contacted. You should also file a report with the police, and contact the 3 credit-reporting bureaus so they will not grant credit to anyone that may have your identity. The most important part of preventing identity theft is to be cautious of releasing your personal information and vigilant in checking your credit and banking accounts.