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ID Thieves Love These Everyday Numbers

To avoid identity theft, protect your birth date and other common digits

Scam Alert: Numbers You Didn't Know You Need to Protect

eric nyffeler/doe eyed

Protect what seem to be everyday numbers from scammers; for instance, never use your birth date, your birth year or your home's street number as a PIN for an ATM.

En español | We all know identity thieves can hit the jackpot if they get ahold of your Social Security or financial account numbers. But crooks also prize what may seem like the mundane digits of your everyday life. Here are ones they're after — and some ways to protect yourself.

ZIP code

You may be asked for it when you pay with a credit card at a store's cash register. Beware — the purpose may be to figure out your address so you can be put on a mailing list and bombarded with junk mail or nuisance calls. Or worse, your ZIP code may find its way to scammers who will couple it with other bits of personal data to steal your identity. Often you have to provide a ZIP code when you use a credit card at an untended machine, such as a gasoline pump. (Making you key it in serves as an added security measure to foil a thief who doesn't know the numbers.) But it's usually unnecessary at brick-and-mortar stores, so just say no. And your ZIP code certainly shouldn't be posted on social media or other public websites.

Birth date

With your name, address and birth date in hand, scammers may be able to buy your Social Security number on websites that normally sell them to businesses conducting background checks. If they can't, just by knowing your birth date and hometown, scammers can often guess most, if not all, the digits of your Social Security number. Some businesses do need your birth date to verify your identity — health care providers and credit card companies, for instance — but most others do not. So think twice before providing it to merchants who might be vulnerable to a data breach by hackers. Forgo the birthday freebies that some businesses offer. And never post your birth date on social media sites or on any other public websites.

Passport

Even if you're not traveling, a lost or stolen passport is serious business. Its number can open the door to identity theft. So at home and abroad, keep your passport securely locked away. If it goes missing in the U.S., call the State Department toll-free at 877-487-2778 to immediately deactivate it and get a new one. Abroad, contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. You can get the address and phone number at usembassy.gov.

Phone number

Your phone number may be unlisted or blocked for caller ID, but special online software can allow phone fraudsters to see it anyway. When you receive robocalls, responding to "opt out" instructions may merely serve to notify the caller that your number is working and ripe for future calls. So just hang up without pressing any key. Making callbacks to offers of free merchandise also reveals your phone number, which can then end up on "sucker lists" that scammers sell to each other online through information black markets.

PINs

Back before computers, personal identification numbers were our original passwords. Most of us still have them, and we sometimes get careless with them. So never use your birth date (for instance, 0207 for Feb. 7), your birth year or your home's street number as a PIN for an ATM. That way, if your wallet falls into the hands of a thief, a quick glance at your driver's license won't translate to the quickest route to an unauthorized cash withdrawal. Avoid portions of your current phone number or Social Security number. And don't use those PINs on your cellphone, either. (You've got it passcode-protected, right?) Also stay away from 1234, 0000, 2580 (a top-to-bottom keypad sequence), 1111, 5555, 5683 (which spells "love"), 0852 (a bottom-to-top sequence), 2222, 1212 and 1998. Studies show those are most often used by cellphone owners — and most easily guessed by well-informed bad guys.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

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