Protecting your personal information is the key to protecting yourself from identity theft, Manie van Schalkwyk, the executive director of the Southern African Fraud Prevention Service (SAFPS), says.

“Consumers need to be vigilant to minimise the risk of identity theft, and this means protecting personal information,” he says.

If you suspect that you have fallen prey to identity theft or fraud, you are urged to report it to the SAFPS, Van Schalkwyk says. The benefit of doing this is that all SAFPS-member organisations, including the banks, clothing and furniture retailers and some insurance companies, have access to the SAFPS’s database and any identity theft or fraud will be flagged and access to credit can be prevented, he says. “This is a free service, and consumers are encouraged to use it.”

The SAFPS has the following advice for consumers who want to protect their personal information:

* Shred receipts, credit and insurance information, medical records and bank statements, and lock financial documents and other records in a safe place.

* Leave your identity document in a safe place at home. When going out, take only your credit and debit cards and your driver’s licence.

* Before you share information at your workplace, a business, your child’s school, or a doctor’s office, ask why they need it, how they will safeguard it, and the consequences of not sharing.

* Banks will not ask you to verify personal information over the phone or via email. If you receive a phone call or an email asking you to verify information, end the call and phone your bank.

* If you receive an email asking for your personal information, do not simply click the “reply” button or a link in the email. Instead, go directly to the sender’s website by typing in the sender’s website address.

* Before you dispose of a computer or a mobile device, ensure that you permanently delete the data on it, and remove the SIM card and any other storage devices.

* Keep your browser secure by using encryption software that scrambles information you send over the internet. Install anti-virus software, anti-spyware software and a firewall.

* Check that the lock icon is present in website addresses before you send personal or financial information online.

* Use strong passwords for your laptop and your credit, bank and other accounts. Substitute numbers for some words or letters. For example, “I love my cat Two Cents!” could become 1lmc2c!

* Do not post images of your identity book or passport, plane ticket, driver’s licence or other personal information on social media. Never post your full name, identity number, address, phone number or account numbers on publicly accessible sites.

* Wi-fi is not always safe. Before you send personal information over your laptop or smartphone on a public wireless network in a coffee shop, library, airport, hotel or other public place, make sure that the information will be protected.