Each year millions of Americans have their personal information compromised, and the number keeps growing. From large scale data breaches to Social Security and IRS scams, there are plenty of risks to be wary of. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has received nearly 1.3 million reports about government imposters scams since 2014.

Most people don’t learn about identity theft and fraud until after it happens. Make it your mission to be vigilant about your personal and financial information security. The steps you take to be proactive could go a long way, and save you the heartache of dealing with fraud and theft.

Is there a difference between identity theft and identity fraud?

Identity theft and identity fraud are often used interchangeably, but what is the difference? To understand how to best guard yourself and your family, learn the subtle differences.

Namely, theft and fraud can be distinguished by how your stolen information is used.

When criminals commit identity theft, they use your personal information, such as Social Security numbers, birth dates, names and addresses, to assume your identity. Once someone has this information, they can open new credit cards in your name, apply for jobs, and even take your tax refund.

On the other hand, identity fraud occurs when someone steals then uses personal information to commit a crime, like using existing cards to make fraudulent purchases. A criminal can’t use your identity or personal information to commit crimes without obtaining the information first. Thus, the two crimes go hand in hand.

Here are some ways to protect yourself:

1. Don't click on suspicious emails.

Most people are familiar with phishing, a tactic that includes using emails or fake websites designed to extract your personal information. Potential identity thieves may pose as credit card companies or financial institutions to contact you directly. When you’re being phished, you’ll receive an email that asks you to verify transactions or personal information. Poor spelling and unofficial URLs are the clearest indicators of phishing emails. If something looks suspicious, don’t click on it and contact the institution directly to verify information.

2. Avoid sharing highly sensitive personal information.

Don’t overshare online – this includes social media profiles. Sharing addresses, phone numbers and social security numbers online make you an easy target for identity theft.

3. Watch your mail and shred financial documents before throwing them out.

Pick up your mail regularly, especially if you’re receiving paper bills. You can drop off your outgoing mail at the post office instead of leaving it exposed to reduce your risk.

4. Mix it up and change your passwords.

Creating the same password and username for every website login makes stealing your information easier. Once thieves have that information, they have access to everything you do online. Change things up and reset your passwords every few months to keep thieves at bay. There are also a number of reputable password managers to help you manage and secure them.

5. Stay ahead of the curve by watching for abnormal texts.

A relatively new form of identity theft is SMiShing, similar to phishing, but it occurs via SMS text messages. Typically you’ll receive a fake text message from your financial institution or credit card company saying your accounts have been compromised. The message will include a link for you to see the transaction or will request a callback number to discuss the issue. Protect yourself by staying alert and not opening or responding to suspicious messages.

6. Place an Active Duty Alert on your credit report.

The Active Duty Alert is a special fraud alert that is designed to protect service members. While the alert is active, companies will be required to take additional security precautions before granting credit in your name. If you’re deploying soon, request an Active Duty Alert on your credit report to help minimize identity theft risk.

What to do if your identity has been stolen

So you’ve made it your mission to stay alert to the warning signs of identity theft. You’ve seen something suspicious online or via email. You may have noticed errors on your credit report or started getting bills for new credit cards you didn’t sign up for. What do you do now?

If you think you’re a victim of fraud or identity theft, contact your financial institution and credit card companies to close any accounts that have been compromised. Always report theft to the FTC and the Social Security Administration if your Social Security number has been compromised.

Then, get a copy of your credit report to the credit bureaus so you can dispute any errors or fraudulent activities before they impact your credit card score. If there’s a possibility that your checkbook has been lost or stolen, don’t forget to contact a check verification company.

Even if you take all the necessary precautions to protect your information, sometimes the unexpected happens and your information is compromised. It’s a known risk in today’s digital world. Your best offense is a great defense against these security risks.