fairwinds.org | wherever you are

You might not realize just how much personal information you give out every day.

Did you use your debit card to buy groceries this morning? Maybe you charged your lunch this afternoon. Maybe you reserved a hotel room online for a planned vacation.

In each instance, you provided someone you probably don't know with personal information.

Identity theft is a serious problem in the United States. And it's only gotten worse with the boom in online shopping. Consumers have gotten lazy when it comes to protecting their personal information. There are times when that laziness comes back to haunt them.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect your personal information.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse says that protecting your personal information starts with ordering the three free credit reports that you are entitled to every year. You can obtain a copy of your credit reports -- one each from the national credit bureaus TransUnion, Equifax and Experian -- by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com. You are entitled to order your three credit reports once every year at no charge from this site.

Once you get these reports, check them carefully. Make sure that no one has opened credit-card accounts or taken out loans in your name. Make sure that your reports don't list any late payments on accounts that you don't remember opening.

Check your credit-card debt carefully on your report. You'll want to know if someone has used your personal information to open up a new credit card account in your name.

Thieves can gain access to your personal information by stealing all those unsolicited credit card or insurance offers that fill your mailbox each week. When you dispose of this junk mail, be sure to shred the papers before tossing them in the garbage or recycling. Identity thieves are not above digging through your garbage to unearth these offers, which they then use to apply for credit cards in your name.

Of course, the best way to protect yourself from this scam is to keep the pre-approved unsolicited credit card offers from coming at all. You can do this by officially opting out from these offers.

To do this, log on to www.optoutprescreen.com or call 888-567-8688. You can choose to opt out for five years with this method. If you'd like to opt out permanently from these offers, you can fill out and mail the permanent opt-out form located at www.optoutprescreen.com.

Privacy and social media

The rise of such social networks as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest has created new challenges when it comes to protecting your personal information.

Part of the problem is that consumers tend to share too much information when posting on Facebook or sending out a Tweet. Information that they'd never share in person or even on the telephone they give little thought to including in social media post.

Don't cause yourself problems. As StaySafeOnline.org -- a project of the National Cyber Security Alliance -- says, once you post something online, it's always posted, even if you erase it.

Before posting on social networking sites, study the privacy and security settings that they offer. Many sites allow you to limit who sees your posts and profile information. There's no shame in limiting the number of people who can access your social networking posts. In fact, doing so may keep cyber criminals away from your personal information.

StaySafeOnline writes that the more personal information you provide online -- including information that can help others decipher where you live and where you work -- the more at risk you are at becoming a victim of identity theft. As the site says, the more you post about yourself, the easier you are making life for a hacker who'd love to gain access to your personal data.

Dangerous smartphones

Smartphones create security problems as well. As the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse says, today's smartphones store a tremendous amount of personal information. What would happen if the wrong person stole or found your lost phone?

A lost or stolen phone is why the clearinghouse recommends that you protect it with a password. A strong password -- one that contains at least eight characters and includes a combination of numbers, letters and symbols -- can keep a criminal from logging onto your phone and stealing the personal data on it.

You should make sure, too, that your phone does not automatically remember log-in passwords for e-mail, social media or financial accounts.

Protecting yourself from identity theft often requires little more than common sense. By being aware of your actions during a typical day, you can take steps to reduce your chances of becoming a victim.