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Living with credit, Protecting yourself

Avoid identity theft – empty your trash

Jenny Hoff

We all read with horror about data breaches at companies that hold our information, and we’re shocked if someone steals our credit card number when our card never left the wallet. Yet, when it comes to basic protection of our personal and payment information, most of us are a little lackluster in our vigilance.

Take for example, any time we use public computers.

When traveling abroad, I went to countless internet cafes to print documents or make copies, and I almost always found the computer’s documents folder to be full of downloads with other users’ information. And those who were digitally savvy enough to put their documents in the trash bin on the computer screen often didn’t finish the job by actually emptying the trash.

That same danger of leaving sensitive information where it can be easily accessed exists closer to home today. No dumpster divers are needed to find your personal information. If you live in an apartment building with a business center with a printer, one check of the computer will introduce you to more information about your neighbors than you care to know. (Or if you’re in the habit of applying for credit cards using other people’s names, it’s easy to turn up the needed information).

A friend was stunned to find someone’s job contract, with all of that individual’s personal details, sitting in the trash bin of her apartment’s public computer. I have found PDFs of credit card statements, complete with the full name, card number and credit limit of the user; apartment leases fully filled out; and job applications with everything a fraudster would want to know.

Imagine what you might find in the computer room of a university, where thousands of students whose identities are ripe for the stealing are using the computers day and night.

Here’s the thing: Most people who happen on a stray document won’t do anything bad with your information, but it takes only one person to make your life an identity theft nightmare. And studies have shown there are enough of those criminals out there to create a new identity theft victim every two seconds.

If you’re still thinking, “What can someone even do with my identity? I barely have any money in my bank account!” this infographic from Javelin Strategy & Research shows all that’s needed is your credit information. Fraudsters don’t need your savings to live a life of luxury; they just need access to your credit and the amount credit issuers are willing to give you.

No matter how informed we are, we’re all probably going to be a little lazy at some point when it comes to protecting ourselves. (I mean, really, how many of us have a different, complex password for every single account we use?)

But this is an easy task: The next time you use a public computer, don’t just log out of your email and any account you may have opened. Delete all the documents you saved and empty the trash.

And be a good neighbor. Empty the trash containing documents belonging to previous users of that public computer. By doing this, you may save someone hundreds of hours on the phone, trying to reclaim an identity they’re simply shocked someone managed to steal.

See related: 10 warning signs of identity theft — and what to do about them

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    All true and good advice when using public computers in friendly, trusted, and monitored environments like universities or business offices. But places like internet cafes and hotels should be viewed as potentially hostile environments. By using a public system in such a place, you risk exposing your personal information regardless of what you delete.

    Any public system might have malware or other unknown monitoring software installed to copy your personal data as quickly as you type it in or download it from your bank. You should never provide login credentials or access confidential information using any computer you don’t control (i.e., own) because you have no idea what additional software may be running.