Identity Theft: Increased Risk Arrives with Your January Mail

There are certain times of the year when identity theft is more prevalent. Back in September, I wrote about how scam artists target children during the back-to-school season. When it comes to adults, we are particularly vulnerable during the month of January.

Why is January so risky? This is the time when employers and banks send out all of their year-end documents, including our W-2s, 1099s and brokerage statements. All of these items contain our most personal and precious information and sit unguarded in our mailboxes. All a thief has to do is simply grab a handful of letters while you're at work and your identity could be compromised.

This particular crime catches a lot of folks off guard since most of us think of it as high tech fraud, says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for SmartCredit.com. Mention identity theft to most people and they imagine online phishing scams or data breaches. But the reality is that so much damage is done in a very low tech way. Many fraudsters still favor old fashioned scams such as shoulder surfing, dumpster diving and grabbing the mail right out of your mailbox, he says.

What can you do to prevent identity theft in January? Here are some tips from Ulzheimer:

Make an inventory. Write down every piece of information rich mail you anticipate receiving in January and mark it off when it arrives, recommends Ulzheimer. This will help you keep track of what you receive and which documents never reach you.

Sign up for electronic delivery. When possible, have as many official year-end documents sent directly to your email inbox. This will prevent mailbox theft. It may even help you stay organized since you won't have to locate random pieces of paper at tax time.

Be diligent. Make sure you check your mail daily. The worst thing you can do is let important documents sit in an unlocked mailbox overnight, says Ulzheimer. If you're planning on going away try to have a neighbor retrieve your mail regularly.

Check your credit reports. By February and March you'll want to get your free credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com so you can see if scam artist opened up any new accounts in your name. This is particularly important if didn't receive all of your year-end documents and had to ask for duplicates to get mailed to you.

How do you protect yourself against identity theft?

Stacey Bradford is the author of The Wall Street Journal Financial Guidebook for New Parents.
Mail image is courtesy of Flickr, CC 2.0.
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