Keep your info close and your money closer
Take a few seconds – three actually. That’s how often a person in the US becomes the victim of identity fraud. In 2014, there were approximately 12.7 million incidents of identity fraud in the US to the tune of $16 billion dollars, according to recent research.
So what is identity theft and how does it happens? Simply, identity theft is when someone steals your personal information (social security number, credit card number, bank account information) and uses it to open credit card accounts, take out loans, file false medical claims and generally wreak havoc with your finances, credit history, and reputation.
Though identity theft occurs in the real world (stolen wallets, fake fronts on ATMs to collect card info, trash divers) too, its growth in recent years goes hand-in-hand with the online lifestyle. How many of us stop to think twice before entering our email, street address, or financial info to make purchases, redeem promotions or sign up for sites and services?
Let’s be realistic. Despite the potential dangers, our online obsession isn’t going away. And while there are protections in place, enterprising cyber scammers are nothing if not creative and persistent.
While you can’t completely prevent identity theft (short of never using the internet, paying cash only and carrying no ID on you), you can take steps to significantly reduce the possibility of becoming a victim.
- Password playbook
Some sites specifically require passwords with a combination of letters, symbols and numerals. Do this even when they don’t. Also, update passwords regularly and never share them. If there’s any chance that someone else may be using your computer, don’t opt for automatic log-ins, especially for sites that contain sensitive personal information. For security verification questions, avoid easy answers (e.g., the name of your high school) that could be found on your Facebook page or elsewhere online.
- ‘S’ if for security
Before making a purchase online, always make sure you’re on a secure website. A secure website will change from the standard http:// format to include an “s” for “secure:” https://. This means that the website is encrypting your data to make it difficult for hackers to obtain sensitive and personal information like your credit card number. If the website is not secure, you may want to think twice about following through with your order.
- Just say no to handing out info
Be skeptical when asked for your Social Security or bank account numbers. Generally, that info should be reserved for transactions that you initiate and not random pop-up ads or unknown callers offering deals too good to be true. Additionally, as annoying as it may be to re-enter it every time, it’s not wise to store your info on shopping sites. Research shows that almost 1 in 4 consumers receiving a data breach letter from an online merchant became victims of identity fraud.
- Keep your mind on your money
Regularly check your statements and credit reports for unauthorized accounts and withdrawals. If you see something suspicious, immediately contact your bank or credit card company. Note that, by virtue of federal law, credit cards tend to provide more protection than debit cards, so they may be a better bet for online purchases. Plus, since the money doesn’t directly come out of your bank account, you won’t be short-changed (literally) if you experience fraud.
- Put up walls
Consider installing firewalls and virus protection to safeguard information on your computer. You may also want to disable or regularly delete your cookies as they help hackers track your online habits. To double down on safety, get a shredder, or at a minimum, remove the address labels from your mail before tossing it.
Dealing with damage
If your credit or debit card is stolen or you see unauthorized charges, know your rights and act quickly. Usually, you’ll be liable for little or no losses if you promptly report the card missing.
Once you’ve reported the error and have reason to believe fraud occurred, you should place a fraud alert with one of the three major credit agencies. If you see any accounts you did not personally open, file a report with your local police department and the Federal Trade Commission. In extreme cases, you may want to have creditors take additional steps to verify your identity before opening new accounts in your name.
Have you had your fair share of SPAM mail?
Has your personal information ever been compromised due to an online hacker, phishing scam or fraudulent transaction? Share your story. Tell us what happened and what you did to resolve the issue. And if you’ve got tips for protecting money – spill!