It just takes a few hours for a thief to steal your identity, but it can take you years to sort through the mess. Identity thieves aren't always strangers in a far away locations; they can be someone you know or even someone you live with. By taking a few precautions, you can protect your identity and prevent someone from gaining access to your financial information. 

1. Shred Paper

Most people know to shred credit card and bank statements, but you should shred all paperwork with your name and address. It's fine to cut out your personal information and shred just that part if you don't want to shred a large pile of mail.

2. Free Credit Reports

Each of the three credit bureaus—Experian, Equifax and Transunion—will send you a free copy of your credit report every 12 months when you request it through Request a copy from one of them every four months so you can spot unusual activity. Not only will this help you spot identity theft, but you will also spot mistakes and inaccurate information so you can get it corrected. 

3. Credit Monitoring

Keep an eye on your credit with services like Credit Sesame. This free service will alert you when activity happens on your account, such as an inquiry or when a new account is opened. Get alerts by an app on your smart phone, text or email, so you'll know as soon as there is activity on your report. 

4. Fraud Alerts

If you think there is a possibility that someone has your personal information, place an alert on your credit file. With a fraud alert, creditors must confirm your identity before opening an account in your name. A fraud alert usually lasts for three months, but identify theft victims can keep one on their credit report for seven years. 

5. Passwords

Lock your smartphone, tablet and computer with a password, especially if there is any sensitive information on your device. If you use autofill for user names and passwords, someone could log in to your bank account or shopping websites and place orders in your name.

Some websites offer two-step authentication before you can log in. Use this for sites that store your personal information. You will have to enter your password and a text code that is sent to your cell phone when you try to log in. Even if someone gets your password, they can not log in without the text code. 

6. Social Security Number

Do not give out your social security number. Neither your doctor nor a utility company have a right to ask for your social security number, so you do not need to give it to them. If the company employee says that you have to give it to them in order to set up an account, ask to speak to a manager. You may have to pay a cash deposit if you do not give your social security number for a utility account. Do not store your social security card in your wallet. It should be kept in a locked safe so that no one can access it. 

7. Social Media

Maintain some privacy when using social networking sites. Set your Facebook profile to private and only add people that you personally know. Don't add too much personal information about your life, including information about your family, your travel plans or your lifestyle. 

8. Check Your Mail

When you get your credit card statement each month, look over the charges. You should also read your health insurance statements carefully to make sure that no one is using your account for their own health care. 

9. Anti-virus Software

Run anti-virus software on your computer regularly. If your computer did not come with one or it has expired, try Avast or AVG for free. Check for a computer virus or other malware that can potentially steal your personal information.

10. Passwords

When choosing a password or PIN, do not use a common name or number. Don't use your birth date or your pet's name because they are easy to guess. Use a complex password with a mix of numbers, capital and lower case letters and special characters. Avoid using the same password for all of your accounts.

If you can't remember all of your passwords, use a program like SecureSafe so you only have to remember one password. Change the password every few months to keep your account secure. 

Failure to follow these 10 ways to protect your identity doesn't mean that someone will get your personal information, but why take the chance? All of these things are easy, and they all take just a few extra minutes to set in place to avoid years of headache trying to fix the mess after your identity is stolen.