TIME How-To

5 Tips for Getting More Out of Gmail

Gmail is a comprehensive, powerful email program, but it can be confusing, even for those like me who have been using it since it launched in beta in 2004.

That’s because Google likes to add new features to improve the way it works. Some changes are welcome, like the tabs feature that sorts incoming mail into types of mail. Others may streamline the look, but hide basic options, like changing the subject on an email reply. So I’ve pulled together the five features I find most useful in the current iteration of Gmail.

Adding a calendar entry from Gmail

If you get a lot of invites in your email–whether they’re for social events or just plain old work meetings–it’s now easier than ever to add them directly to your Google calendar from an open email. Look for any dates or times in the email and you’ll see dashes appear under those words. Click the date and you’ll get a prompt asking if you want to “Add to Calendar.” Clicking yes shows you your calendar for that date with the event filled in. You can change the date and time and name of the event, before adding it to your calendar. Google also includes a link back to the original email right in your calendar entry.

gmail-calendar-entry-540px
Google

If Google hasn’t identified a date or time within an email, you can still add the entry without leaving your email. With the message open, click the “More” drop-down menu on top of the email. Select “Create event” and your email message will show up in the description section. You can then edit and enter details and click “save”.

Adding a person’s info to your contacts

One of the things I love about Gmail is the ability to easily update a person’s contact information right from within an email. It’s just a little tricky to find this option. In an open email, scan over to the right, just above the ads. This is where you see the option to chat with, email or start a video call with this person.

gmail-save-contact-590px
Google

Next to those icons is a little downward-pointing arrow that gives you more options if you click it. The top option is “Add to contacts” or “edit contact details,” if you have the person already in your address book. Before you click that, copy any info from that person’s signature that you want to paste into their contact entry. Now click edit contact details and you’ll see that person’s name and email address auto-populate in the proper fields. Paste the extra info like phone number and address into the notes field for easy access while you’re editing the contact information. All changes are saved automatically.

Once you’re done, simply hit the back button on your browser to go back to your email.

Sorting and labeling incoming email

One of Google’s recent “improvements” to Gmail is customizable tabs which separate incoming email into categories; Primary, Social and Promotions. Primary is email sent specifically to you, or that you mark as important. Social is email from social networking sites like LinkedIn, Pinterest and Facebook. Promotions is where I find my Groupon emails and other newsletters that I subscribe to. I like this system because it lets me scan my inbox and see what needs tending to first. Then I can go through my LinkedIn updates and ultimately see if there’s a good neighborhood restaurant on Groupon.

The problem with this is that some emails which are sent to multiple users may wind up in the Promotions tab, leading you to believe they’re unimportant – or worse, spam. For instance, the Techlicious Newsletter appears under my Promotions tab, so I don’t see it when first perusing my email in the morning.

It’s easy enough to train Gmail to send items to the proper tab. To move the newsletters and emails that are important to you, simply drag them to the tab you want them to appear in. For instance, I dragged the Techlicious newsletter from the Promotions tab and moved it to my Primary tab. Google asked “do this for future messages?” Clicking “yes” taught Google to send it to my Primary tab the next time. Another option is to right click on the message in your inbox. You’ll get an option to move it to any of the other two folders, or archive or delete it.

You can customize these tabs to your liking. Click the + sign all the way to the right of the tabs and you’ll be given the option of adding Updates and Forums as folders. You’ll be given a preview of email senders from your own inbox that will be sent to each tab. Play around with this feature and choose what works best for you. If you can’t stand the idea of emails being sorted into folders, use this feature to de-select everything but Primary and all of your emails will appear in one folder.

gmail-tabs-568px
Google

Creating and using filters

While we’re on the subjects of sorting emails, it’s really important to know how to create filters for certain types of emails. You can use a filter to label, archive or even delete emails without them ever seeing the light of day in your inbox.

To send non-priority updates — like deals from a favorite retailer — to a folder where you can find them if you want to, open the email and click the more button on top of the screen.

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Google

Now click “Filter messages like these.” You’ll see a pop-up window with the email address of the sender already filled in. Now select “create a filter” and you’ll see a box with different options. I generally select Skip the Inbox (archive it) and then apply a label, like LinkedIn or Facebook.

Gmail-Filters-401px
Google

Now, when those messages come in, they’re automatically archived and sent to specific folders that I can peruse when I have time. You can also use filters to mark items important, or have email from a specific person – like your boss or your spouse – get sorted into a folder of its own.

Changing the subject line in a reply

This is a question I get asked all the time: “How do you change the subject line in an email reply?” Often, someone will reply to an earlier email I’ve sent and include brand new information on an entirely different topic than the original exchange, but the subject line doesn’t reflect that.

To change or update the subject, click reply in an open email and you’ll see that downward-facing arrow next to the reply arrow. Click that and you’ll see options to either reply, reply all, forward or edit subject.

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Google

Could they have buried that feature any deeper? Now, you can delete, or write URGENT or New Info or whatever else you might want to add to the subject.

What are your favorite Gmail tips and tricks? Let us know what you found, or if you have any Gmail questions we can answer.

This article was written by Andrea Smith and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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TIME Ask TIME Tech

Ask TIME Tech: Best iPad for the Money Right Now?

iPads
The iPad Mini 3 (left) and the iPad Air 2 (right) Asahi Shimbun / Getty Images

A rundown of all the available models, highlighting the differences in search of the best value

Question: I need a new iPad, but I’m not sure which one I should get. Is the iPad Air 2 worth it or is one of the other models a better deal? I don’t really care if it’s a full-size iPad or one of the smaller ones. And I’m okay with spending $500, but if I don’t have to, obviously I would like to save some money. What are the main differences between all of them?

Short Answer: Last year’s iPad Mini 2 is a good deal at $299.

Long Answer: Someone who says “I need a new iPad” is apparently a rarity nowadays, with Apple having trouble convincing people to upgrade their tablets regularly. I’m part of the problem: I’ve been using an iPad 3 for the past million years and it still suits me fine.

Here’s a video comparison of all the currently-available iPads, which contains much of the advice you’ll otherwise read below:

iPad Air 2 ($499+)

If you have $500 to spend on an iPad, the new iPad Air 2 won’t disappoint. Of all the available models — there are now five: the iPad Air 2, the iPad Air, the iPad Mini 3, the iPad Mini 2 and the iPad Mini — the iPad Air 2 has the newest processor, which might help you squeeze an extra year out of it over one of the other models.

Don’t get too distracted by the iPad Air 2’s other specs, though. It’s thinner than the first iPad Air, yes, but we’re talking half of a tenth of an inch. It’s lighter, sure, but we’re talking 0.04 pounds for the Wi-Fi model. The big news here is the processor. The iPad Air 2 is also rumored to sport two gigabytes of RAM versus one gigabyte for all the other models, which should increase performance.

The iPad Air 2 has the fingerprint sensor that debuted with the iPhone 5S, which makes unlocking your iPad quick (assuming you lock it with a passcode) and lets you buy stuff from iTunes without typing in your password. You’ll also be able to log into certain third-party apps with your fingerprint as well.

Finally, the iPad Air 2 uses newer, thinner screen technology that makes colors pop a bit more. Apple added an anti-reflective coating as well. The front-facing camera is a little better than the previous model’s, and the Wi-Fi chip uses newer technology that allows it to connect to certain networks faster. Oh, and you can get it in gold (gold is best) and in a 128-gigabyte storage configuration.

iPad Air 2 ($499+) vs iPad Air ($399+)

iPad Air 2 v iPad Air
Apple

Step “down” to last year’s iPad Air, and you lose the gold option. You get a less efficient processor. The screen is still the same resolution, but there’s no antireflective coating. It’s marginally, marginally, marginally less thin and light. The front-facing camera is five megapixels instead of eight. There’s no fingerprint sensor. It doesn’t connect to certain superfast Wi-Fi networks as fast as the iPad Air 2 does. It might not have as much RAM.

On paper, Apple makes a somewhat convincing case for going with the iPad Air 2 over the iPad Air. In reality, what you’re giving up in order to save $100 might not be all that important. The iPad Air is still plenty fast, plenty thin and plenty light.

iPad Air ($399+) vs iPad Mini 3 ($399+)

iPad Air v iPad Mini 3
Apple

Now we’re going to basically step laterally to the iPad Mini 3, Apple’s newest iPad Mini model. Aside from it being smaller than the iPad Air models, under the hood, the iPad Mini 3 is almost identical to the iPad Air — all the way down to the $399 starting price. You do get the fingerprint sensor with the iPad Mini 3, the gold color option and the 128-gigabyte storage option. The processor, cameras, connections and just about everything else are the same.

iPad Mini 3 ($399+) vs iPad Mini 2 ($299+)

iPad Mini 3 v iPad Mini 2
Apple

Here’s where things get interesting. The iPad Mini 3 and the iPad Mini 2 share pretty much the exact same innards, except that the iPad Mini 3 has the fingerprint reader, the gold color option and the 128-gigabyte storage option. For $299, the iPad Mini 2 is on par with both the iPad Mini 3 and the iPad Air, which makes the iPad Mini 2 a great deal relative to the other available iPads. As long as you don’t care about the fingerprint reader, you’re okay with the space gray or silver options, and you don’t have enormous storage requirements, the iPad Mini 2 is arguably the best bang for your buck.

iPad Mini 2 ($299+) vs iPad Mini ($249+)

iPad Mini 2 v iPad Mini
Apple

Don’t fall for this one. You might save $50 by going with the original iPad Mini, but it’s got a much slower processor than all the other iPads and its screen is much lower-resolution. If ever you had a reason to cough up an extra $50, this is it. The iPad Mini at $250 allows Apple to offer an iPad that can kinda-sorta compete with low-cost Android tablets, except that any $250 Android tablet would almost certainly feature much more potent specs. This is half a marketing play by Apple (“iPad starts at $250!”) and half a chance to clear out leftover inventory of a two-year-old tablet.

If you’re looking for even more info, Apple has a handy iPad comparison page for your perusal.

Related:

 

TIME Ask TIME Tech

Amazon’s Kindles Compared: Voyage vs Paperwhite vs Standard

Kindles
Amazon's new Kindle Voyage e-book reader sits atop last year's Kindle Paperwhite Doug Aamoth / TIME

Amazon’s Kindle e-book readers are generally hot holiday items, so let’s explore the various differences between the three available models.

There’s the new $199+ Kindle Voyage, the $119+ Kindle Paperwhite and the $79+ standard Kindle to choose from. Here’s a closer look at what you’re getting.

Screen

Size

Choosing by screen size is easy since they’re all six inches diagonally. Things change once we dig into resolutions and lighting technology.

Resolution

The Kindle Voyage has the best screen, with a 300 pixels-per-inch resolution. The more pixels smooshed into an inch of screen, the better everything looks. The Kindle Paperwhite smooshes 212 pixels into an inch; the standard Kindle smooshes 167 pixels into an inch.

The big question is whether your eyes can discern the differences. I can tell you that when looking at the Paperwhite and the Voyage side by side, the difference is noticeable when looking at graphics and slightly less noticeable when looking at text. The standard Kindle looks… I wouldn’t say “the worst” because it doesn’t look bad. It just looks least good; let’s say that. I’d say the $40 jump from the standard Kindle to the Kindle Paperwhite is a much better value than the $80 jump from the Paperwhite to the Voyage, though.

Reading Light

The standard Kindle has no light; the Paperwhite and Voyage both have built-in lights. They both max out at nearly the same brightness, although the Voyage looks a little cleaner and whiter, and can automatically adjust its screen brightness to match your environment.

Touchscreen

All three devices feature touchscreens, though the Kindle Voyage features squeeze-able side bezels that allow you to turn pages back and forth as well. There’s a nice little vibration feedback with each press when using the Voyage.

Video: Kindle Paperwhite vs Kindle Voyage

Here’s a closer look at the $119 Paperwhite up against the $199 Voyage, with some analysis of all three models at the end:

Storage

Wondering which Kindle can hold the most books? The answer is yes. Yes to any of them: They all have four gigabytes of storage, good for over a thousand books.

Size

The Kindle Voyage is the smallest, measuring 6.4″ long by 4.5″ wide by 0.3″ thick and starting at 6.3 ounces (the 3G version weighs 6.6 ounces).

The Kindle Paperwhite measures 6.7″ long by 4.5″ wide by 0.36″ thick and starts at 7.3 ounces (the 3G version weighs 7.6 ounces). The standard Kindle measures 6.7″ long by 4.7″ wide by 0.4″ thick and weighs 6.7 ounces (there’s no 3G version).

They’re all incredibly portable. I’m not sure buying one over the other based on a tenth of an inch here or an ounce there makes a whole lot of sense, but those are the measurements.

Battery Life

The standard Kindle lasts up to four weeks on a single charge, assuming a half hour of reading each day with the wireless connection turned off. It fully charges within four hours.

The Kindle Voyage lasts up to six weeks on a single charge, assuming a half hour of reading each day with the wireless connection turned off and the light set at 10 (the max is 24). It fully charges within three hours.

The Kindle Paperwhite lasts up to eight weeks on a single charge, assuming a half hour of reading each day with the wireless connection turned off and the light set at 10 (the max is 24). It fully charges within four hours.

So as we see here, the Paperwhite actually has the best battery life. That’s probably a factor of its screen not having to push as many pixels around as the Voyage’s screen. The Paperwhite being ever so slightly thicker than the Voyage might make for a slightly higher-capacity battery as well.

3G or Not 3G?

That is the question. Adding a 3G cellular connection to your Kindle Paperwhite or Kindle Voyage adds $70 to the price tag, but results in being able to download books anywhere you have an AT&T signal — over 100 countries and territories are covered (see this map). There are no monthly service charges for downloading books, though you might incur added charges for downloading magazines and other periodicals.

If you read a lot of books and want to be able to download new ones frequently — especially while you’re on the move — the 3G version of whichever Kindle you’re considering is a no-brainer. If you’re going to be using the Kindle at home a lot or you’ll be around accessible Wi-Fi networks, save the $70.

Best Bet

To be clear, the new Kindle Voyage is an amazing e-book reader. It’s super portable, its screen is gorgeous and the added haptic-feedback page turns are a nice touch. However, the $119 Kindle Paperwhite is still a dynamite e-book reader and is a very worthy upgrade for $40 over the standard Kindle because of its higher-resolution screen and its built-in light. Making the $80 jump from the $119 Paperwhite to the $199 Voyage is simply a much tougher sell.

TIME How-To

Ask TIME Tech: Good Cheap Tablet for Skype?

We've got a $100 limit and a bunch of real-time video to sling back and forth. Let's go!

Question: My husband and I recently had our first child and we want to be able to Skype with my mom and dad. We (my husband and I) both have iPhones and iPads, so we looked in to FaceTime, but an iPad or iPhone for my parents seemed too expensive. They have a computer, but they don’t like using it all that much, although that could be an option in a pinch. Is there a good, inexpensive tablet we could get them, though? We’d like to keep it around $100 or less if possible.

Short answer: Get Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD 6 for $99 or use their existing computer for free.

Long answer: FaceTime is great if everyone has Apple produ–I’m so sorry: Congratulations on your new baby! I just launched right into the answer like a nerdy robot. Rude. I have a child, too. He’s about to turn one. We actually have a similar problem in my family, too, with everyone on different mobile platforms.

Anyway, enough with the small talk. To get Mom and Dad on the FaceTime train, your cheapest option would be to get them an iPod Touch, which is like a phone-less iPhone. Those start at $200; iPads and iPhones go up from there.

Now, if they have a relatively new-ish Mac computer, they’re already able to FaceTime with you guys. They can downloaded FaceTime from the Mac App Store here if they don’t already have it. It’s free. And if they have just about any type of computer with a webcam, they can use Skype for free — download it here.

An easy, cheap, portable option that doesn’t tie Mom and Dad to the computer, though, would be Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD 6 tablet. It’s got a powerful enough processor to handle Skype video chats, sports both front- and rear-facing cameras — which is an area where cheap tablets tend to skimp by only including one camera — and has an easy-to-use interface.

The screen measures six inches diagonally, which is small for a tablet. That makes it easy to hold in one hand, but if your parents have poor eyesight or they just want to watch Junior waddle around on as big a screen as possible, this option is almost like giving them an oversized smartphone. The screen itself is sharp, though.

You didn’t mention which kinds of iPhones you and your husband have, but here’s the Amazon tablet sandwiched in between a Kindle Paperwhite e-reader on the left and an iPhone 5S on the right:

Skype Kindle Fire HD
Kindle Paperwhite e-reader (left), Kindle Fire HD 6 tablet (middle), iPhone 5S (right) Doug Aamoth / TIME

The tablet is sized like a thicker, heavier e-reader. Your parents can read books on it, too, along with doing a bunch of other stuff, so that might be a bonus. If they want to use it only for Skype, that’s perfectly fine.

Once they get the tablet, here’s a quick step-by-step for installing Skype. You can either send them to this article and have them watch this quick video or tell them what to do by stepping them through the directions after the video:

Basically, they’ll want to tap “Apps” at the top of the tablet’s main screen, then “Store” in the upper-right corner (there’s a shopping-cart icon), then “Search” in the upper-right corner, then type “Skype” and hit the magnifying glass in the lower-right corner of the keyboard.

Careful: That magnifying glass is right above another magnifying glass that searches the entire tablet. And there are two Skype apps that pop up in the search results. They’ll want to tap the second one. The first one is called “Skype WiFi” and searches for Wi-Fi hotspots. They want the second one: plain old “Skype” with the “S” logo.

They’ll need to create a Skype account, of course. They can create one here or from directly within the app when it first launches.

Good luck!

TIME How-To

The Best Sites for Booking Last-Minute Travel

Many great travel deals can be found by carefully planning in advance. But spur-of-the-moment trips can also be had for cheap if you know where to look.

That’s because hotels, airlines, resorts and more are looking to fill vacant spots at the last minute.

Here are our picks for the best sites to book a great trip on short notice without blowing a crazy amount of money.

Best all around last-minute booking site: Expedia.com

expedia-last-minute-deals-2014-510px
Expedia

Expedia.com’s last-minute booking page wins for layout as well as price and convenience. Three columns of deals under the headers of Tonight, This Weekend and Next Weekend show you top deals for the destination you select. You can further filter your results to see just flight, just hotels or package deals for both. Destinations include both major U.S. cities and foreign vacation spots.

Clicking on a deal will give you a page showing you pictures plus ratings, reviews and amenities. You will also see, in the case of a hotel, what other rooms are available and their prices as well. Flights work in a similar fashion. Find the destination and deal that appeal to you and you will be shown other flights leading to that destination in case you’re looking for alternatives.

Of course, the best deal is flight + hotel. Just mousing over the options will show you how much money you’ll be saving by booking them together. Just remember that the stated price doesn’t include baggage fees.

Best last-minute hotel: Hotel Tonight

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Hotel Tonight

This isn’t a site, but an app — and it’s a life saver. Need an extra night’s stay but your hotel has no more vacancy? Score a last-minute flight and need a place to stay? The Hotel Tonight app detects your location and shows you all the hotels in your area with vacancy. You can also set it to show you a city you haven’t arrived in yet.

The display shows you pictures of the property, the price, the quality of the hotel and how much you’ll save. Tapping on a specific hotel on the list will give you more images, user reviews and, most importantly, a Need to Know section under the Info tab. This lists the restrictions of that particular deal. Pay attention to limitations like the inability to book a specific type of bed until arrival or warnings about the neighborhood around the hotel.

Price: Free on iTunes and Google Play.

Best last-minute flight: Kayak

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Kayak

Kayak pulls in data on more than 400 airlines and lets you compare multiple travel sites at once. Not only can it direct you to other travel deal sites, but it also shows you the current prices directly from the major airlines’ websites.

The sliders on the sidebar is what makes Kayak really shine. Adjusting the sliders and checking off the options you want will quickly show you the exact deals you’re looking for. You can upgrade or downgrade your seat, choose a different airline or select a new take-off/landing time.

Don’t forget to click on the “More Filters” button in the sidebar to narrow down the price range, layover options and, most importantly, planes with built-in Wi-Fi. Seriously, what did we do on planes before Wi-Fi?

Best last-minute room rental: Airbnb

airbnb-2014-510px
Airbnb

Though there’s no explicit LAST MINUTE DEALS CLICK HERE! button on the front of the site, Airbnb is still a great service for finding a last-minute room at a fraction of the cost of even a deeply discounted hotel room. Simply enter your destination and dates (even if it’s tonight) and the site will display all the rooms, apartments and houses that are available to rent by the day. (Note: There is a “Help! I need a place, tonight” search feature in the app for iOS and Android.)

Concerned about the safety of spending the night in someone else’s home? Every listing includes actual user reviews. There’s also a 24/7 hotline if you have any issues with your stay. It’s one of the best ways to find a place quickly and cheaply and to make a new friend along the way courtesy of your gracious hosts.

Pro tip: The best way to save money on last-minute travel plans is to have some flexibility. Can you take a plane with a layover instead of a direct flight? Are you willing to stay in a hotel in a new part of the city? Comfortable sleeping in an extra room of a welcoming host’s house? A little adventure can go a long way in saving you a lot of cash.

This article was written by Dan O’Halloran and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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TIME How-To

Gmail Tips: Get Organized with Labels and Filters

Hi, there. I’m going to use an email message from my friend Ben to show you how to organize your Gmail inbox a little better.

First order of business: never delete messages. We’re going to archive them instead. This is the equivalent of taking every piece of physical mail that’s ever been sent to your house and putting it in your basement instead of throwing the mail you don’t need or don’t care about away. If you do this in real life, you’re crazy. If you don’t do this online, you’re crazy.

There are three buttons above every message: one that looks like a box (Archive), then an exclamation point inside a stop sign (Report spam), then a trash can (Delete). Unless you’re running really low on Google storage space (you probably aren’t), always use Archive when you’re done reading a message that you’d like to file away and retrieve later (or never).

Gmail Tricks
Google

Now, I need a place to file this message away. I’m going to create a label for it. Click the label-looking thing up at the top of the message and choose “Create new” to — you guessed it — create a new label.

Gmail Tricks
Google

I’m going to call this label “Emails from Ben” since it will contain emails from Ben.

Gmail Tricks
Google

Now that the label has been created, you’ll notice a little link that says “Emails from Ben” next to the subject of the email message. Clicking that label will take me to a list of all the emails I’ve labeled as “Emails from Ben.” There will only be one email on that list right now, though. Oh, and I can add multiple labels to each message if I like. If Ben were a member of my family (he’s not) and he emailed me about some bill that needed paying, I could label that message “Emails from Ben” and “Household” if I wanted to. That’s for the advanced class, though.

Gmail Tricks
Google

Now, I could just manually label every email from Ben under “Emails from Ben” but I’m a busy, important, handsome man who doesn’t have time for that nonsense. Let’s automate this process. Under the More button, I’ll choose “Filter messages like these” to create a filter.

Gmail Tricks
Google

Here is where you’ll need to be wearing elastic-leg undergarments if you tend to get too excited by technology. I’ll create a filter that does something (I’ll denote the “something” next) every time I get an email from Ben. This filter will work off of his email address, but I could set different parameters or additional parameters. That’s also for the advanced class. For this go-around, we’ll stick to Ben’s email address. Click “Create filter with this search” to move on.

Gmail Tricks
Google

As you can see, I have a lot of options here. Every time I get an email from Ben, I can archive it immediately, mark it as read, star it, and a bunch of other fun stuff. I’m going to choose to “Apply the label” and choose the “Emails from Ben” label we made a few steps earlier. And since I want all past emails from Ben to get categorized under the “Emails from Ben” label (but I don’t want to label them all by hand), I’m going to choose the “Also apply filter to matching conversations” checkbox at the bottom before clicking the “Create filter” button.

Gmail Tricks
Google

Now every email that Ben has sent me from that particular email address should show up under the “Emails from Ben” label that’s accessible from the left-hand column. And every email I get from him in the future will automatically get the “Emails from Ben” label applied to it automatically. When I’m done reading a message from him, I’ll archive it and know where to quickly find it later.

Gmail Tricks
Google

“Well, that was stupid,” you’re saying. Maybe so, but this sorcery can be applied to a whole bunch of other stuff.

Let’s say, for instance, that I want to sign up for a website that requires an email address but I don’t want to give this website my real address. I can add a “+” to my Gmail username between my name and the “@” to create a Gmail alias. I can then filter messages sent to “doug+spam@gmail.com” to either skip my inbox altogether and/or to get automatic labels applied to them.

Here’s a quick video of the process in action:

In essence, learning how to work with labels and filters allows you to create several automated traffic cops that can sling your email around as you see fit. Once you’ve tweaked everything a bit, you’ll notice a cleaner inbox despite spending less time dealing with email.

TIME How-To

Tips for Stopping Identity Theft

This has been a good year for hackers. To date, businesses, medical centers, banks and schools have suffered some 578 data breaches, exposing over 76 million records of personal and financial information (Identity Theft Resource Center PDF).

Home Depot recently announced its database had been breached, with hackers making off with around 56 million payment card numbers. Earlier in the year, Neiman Marcus and Michaels revealed similar hacks, exposing 1.1 million and 2.6 million records respectively (PDF).

While some fraudsters might take advantage of stolen information to clear out your bank account or make claims on your insurance policies, a more insidious form of identity fraud has emerged based on scammers who create whole new accounts — bank accounts, store accounts, credit card accounts — in your name.

Identity thieves can use your personal information to open and max out multiple credit cards, apply for loans and place deposits on big-ticket items. This activity all goes onto your credit profile, eventually sinking your credit rating. Yet you might never find out about the unauthorized activity until the debt collectors come calling or you find yourself summarily rejected for a loan or mortgage application.

Many folks have turned to credit monitoring services that will notify you about unusual activity. But that’s the equivalent of closing the door after the horse has already left the barn. At that point, thieves have already opened accounts and compromised your credit.

So what can you do to thwart identity thieves? The major credit bureaus let you freeze your credit or add a fraud alert. Both are free, but each has its limitations.

Is it time for a freeze?

Closing any compromised credit and bank accounts can stem your financial losses, true. But thieves can continue opening false accounts and piling up debt on your credit profile, making it impossible to successfully apply for credit.

To stop thieves in their tracks, put a security freeze on your credit profile, which prohibits lenders and companies that are trying to check your credit from accessing your profile. This prevents thieves from opening new accounts under your name, because creditors are unable to check your credit history.

“The security freeze is a good tool for someone with recurring fraud issues,” says Rod Griffin, director of public education for credit reporting agency Experian. “That’s the insidious nature of fraud. Once an identity has been stolen, more false accounts may pop up again six months or two years later, and we wouldn’t necessarily recognize it as fraud.”

A fraud alert may be more helpful

If you’re planning on getting a mortgage, a car or even a new telephone service, a security freeze can hold up the process by preventing the service providers from checking your credit. “For most people, if you plan to apply for credit or services that need credit checking, a security freeze tends to be more intrusive than it is beneficial,” Griffin says.

Instead, if you believe you’re the victim of fraud, Griffin recommends first requesting a copy of your credit report. At the same time, alert a credit reporting agency that you suspect you may be at risk for fraud. The credit reporting agency will place an initial fraud alert on your profile so that any companies requesting a copy of the profile are told to ask for additional proof of identity. This makes it more difficult for identity thieves to prove they are you. The credit agency you alert will let the other two agencies know to do the same.

Next, comb your credit report for activity that wasn’t generated by you. Common signs of fraud include social security number and address changes or names and accounts you don’t recognize. “If you discover you have been the victim of fraud, file a police report, send it to Experian, and we extend the fraud alert so that it stays on your profile for seven years,” Griffin says.

Set fraud alerts and security freezes

Follow these steps to set a security freeze or a security alert.

1. If you suspect you have been the victim of identity theft, set an initial fraud alert at any of the three credit agencies. You can do this online, and the agency you contact will alert the others to add a fraud message to the profile they hold on you. We also recommend alerting Innovis, a smaller credit agency. Here are the links to their fraud alert pages for quick access:

An initial fraud alert on your profile advises potential creditors to request additional verification of your identity if an account is opened in your name. This alert lasts for 90 days. If you apply for anything requiring a credit check during this period, you should be prepared to provide greater proof of your identity than usual.

2. If you find that you are the victim of identity theft — for example, if your credit profile shows suspicious activity or a debt collector turns up demanding payments for something you know nothing about — you can request an extended fraud alert that lasts for seven years. File a police report and mail a copy to the credit agency along with your request for an extended fraud alert. The credit agency will verify the fraudulent accounts and clear them out of your profile. Potential creditors will continue to receive alerts that your profile is associated with fraud, with instructions to request additional ID verification.

3. If fraudulent activity continues to appear on your credit profile, you may want to consider a security freeze. With a credit freeze, no one can access your credit profile except lenders you specify during a time period you set. You need to set up a freeze individually with each credit agency, either by phone or via each agency’s online form.

When you freeze your credit profile, you’ll receive a PIN to use for temporarily lifting the freeze to allow specific credit checks. Security freezes are free for victims of identity theft, and will run anywhere from $0 to $10 for other applicants, depending on age and state of residence. Fees for lifting and restoring freezes vary by state from free to $5.

How to stay safe

“Knowing when your personal data has been compromised is very difficult, as it could happen from any number of places which hold that data,” says Thomas Labarthe, managing director (Europe) for security firm Lookout. When a security breach occurs at a point-of-sale terminal, as it did in the recent Home Depot breach, consumers are especially powerless and may never find out about the breach until the retailer itself uncovers it. “It’s best to only use credit cards, as there’s an added layer of protection which makes it easier to claim money back in cases of fraud,” Labarthe says.

When you’re shopping online, use encrypted sites with “https” in the URL, and only use credit cards even when using secure online payment services. Offline, make sure your mailbox is secure; fraudsters can get plenty of identifying information from stolen mail.

Most importantly, check your credit profile once a year. You can request an annual free copy from each credit agency at AnnualCreditReport.com.

This article was written by Natasha Stokes and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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