Last year more than 11 million Americans were victims of information theft. Protect your family with a few simple steps.

By Stacey L. Bradford

The three ways your personal information can be compromised:

  • Dumpster divers search your trash for personal data.
  • Hostile computer viruses gain access to passwords, user names and account numbers.
  • Old-fashioned thieves swipe gadgets stocked with sensitive information.

How to Protect Your Personal Information

  1. Shred mail with your name and address, especially credit card statements and any other bills that include account numbers.
  2. Create passwords with upper and lower case letters and numbers, which are more difficult for criminals to hack, says Adam Levin, chairman of He also recommends using symbols like a "$" instead of an "S."
  3. Change passwords often. Trouble keeping track? Record them in a secure encrypted thumb drive. Try the Edge SuperSpeed USB 3.0 Flash Drive (, $10-$35).
  4. Protect computers, laptops, smartphones and tablets with the latest anti-virus and malware software. McAfee's All Access Household guards five people's devices for $149.99 a year (
  5. Don't leave your devices unattended in public places. Set up a password-protected autolock feature so no one besides you can access your phone or tablet, says John Sileo, founder of
  6. Download or enable a GPS tracking app for locating a lost device from the Internet.
  7. Look into remote "wipe" apps that remove all data, including saved passwords and your address book, in case of loss or theft.

Monitor Your Info

If your credit card number or social security number is stolen, you're more likely to be a victim of identity theft than other consumers, according to Javelin Strategies. While you should always try to minimize your risk, these steps become crucial once your security has been breached.

  1. Be on the lookout for oddities. Check your bank accounts and credit cards online daily for suspicious activity.
  2. Sign up for credit monitoring, which alerts you to potential misuse of your social security number. Many banks and retailers offer free monitoring if their data files have been stolen, or check with your credit union or insurance company. To do this on your own, AllClearID's basic identity protection plan is free; the more sophisticated monitoring AllClear Pro is $14.95/month) or My ID Alerts ID Analytics ($4.95/month).
  3. Consider a credit freeze, says Robert Siciliano, an identity theft expert with McAfee. "It's like a seat belt for your identity," he says. Once you call the three credit bureaus—Experian, TransUnion and Equifax—no one can open new accounts in your name. If you need to access your credit, say, to apply for a loan, you can temporarily unfreeze it for about $15 depending on the credit bureau.

Even if you haven't been a victim of bank breach, it's a good idea to pull your credit report once a year at If you notice a problem—think unknown credit card accounts or debts—immediately contact the three credit bureaus and consider adding a fraud alert to your credit reports.

Protecting Your Kids from Identity Theft

Kids are more likely than adults to have their identity stolen; credit cards opened in their names often go undetected since minors don't apply for credit. And the risk increases as they head back to school armed with registration forms and high-tech gadgets chock-full of personal information. Talk to your kids about these rules:

  • Don't leave smartphones in lockers or in unattended backpacks.
  • Always password-protect smartphones and avoid saving passwords that enable automatic e-mail log-in.
  • Track personal information shared on social networks. Disclosing seemingly innocent facts like the name of a high school or a pet on Facebook could give access to accounts, warns Levin, since they're typical website security questions.
  • Skip quizzes. Some "Do You Really Know Your Friend?" tests are created to get teens to divulge their place of birth, mother's maiden name or other details that can be used to change a bank password, says Levin.
  • Download only well-known Android and iPhone applications from well-known developers, like Facebook. If you're unsure, research the app—it should be at least six months old with positive reviews, says Siciliano.

Tip for Parents: provides free ChildScans that check whether a minor's personal information has been stolen.

Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.

This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and styles are subject to change.