Identity theft occurs when someone obtains your private identifying information, such as your credit card data or Social Security number, and uses it to commit fraud or other crimes. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that 9.9 million Americans suffer from identity theft every year. Although this is only 3% of the US population, the cost and time to repair your credit can be far reaching. The U.S. Department of Justice and Javelin Strategy & Research estimate the average financial loss per identity theft incident to be $4,930, and the FTC estimates the time to recover takes an average of 200 hours over six months. While most people are not impacted by this crime, the potential cost and time needed to rebound make the small steps to prevent it well worthwhile. Here are some common-sense, no-cost measures to protect against identity theft and fraud:
Monitor Bank & Credit Card Statements
Online banking makes it easy to keep an eye out for unauthorized activity in your bank and credit card accounts on a regular basis. Purchases you didn’t make should be apparent – such as a gas fill-up or drug store purchase half way across the county. Thieves often charge small amounts rather than large, obvious purchase likely to trigger a fraud alert.
Monitor Your Credit Report
Identity thieves don’t limit themselves to existing accounts, they also establish new accounts in the victim’s name, making the fraud harder to detect. By taking advantage of your right to a free report every year from each of the three credit bureaus, you can identify any new, unauthorized accounts that have been opened in your name. Request a report every four months, changing bureaus each time. There are many knockoff sites that will try to charge you for your report so be sure to use annualcreditreport.com.
Shred Sensitive Documents
While certain documents need to be kept for taxes or other purposes, shred other documents you don’t need, such as outdated bank and credit card statements or anything with account numbers or your personal information on it. In addition, shred any financial solicitations you receive in the mail, especially credit card offers containing blank checks.
Identity Theft Protection Online
Most of us shop, pay our bills and track our financial information online. With all those account numbers and passwords floating around, it’s easy for someone to grab your info and go on a shopping spree. Here are some tips for keeping your information safe when you’re online.
1. Clear your logins and passwords
This is especially true if you’ve been working on a public computer. Many sites and browsers will prompt you to save you login information and although it may save you time in the future, avoid doing so on sites containing your financial information.
2. Use your credit card to pay for online purchases
Credit cards have better online guarantees than online payment services or debit cards.
3. Create strong passwords and change them monthly
Using a combination of spaces, special characters, upper and lowercase letters make your password more difficult to hack. The longer the password the better – a 12 character password would take 17,134 years for a hacker to crack. (source: CNN)
4. Be careful with unsecured Wi-Fi
Criminals have become more proficient at intercepting unsecured Wi-Fi communications, so avoid banking or making online purchases when on public Wi-Fi. Be sure to use a strong password on your home Wi-Fi network.
5. Don’t over share on social networks
Many social networking sites ask for sensitive information that can often be used to figure out your passwords, or for other malicious purposes. According to Entrepreneur’s Organization, the following profile elements can be used to steal or misappropriate your identify:
- Full name (particularly your middle name)
- Date of birth (often required)
- Home town
- Relationship status
- School locations and graduation dates
- Pet names
- Other affiliations, interests and hobbies
6. Install and maintain anti-virus and anti-malware software
Malware is fast becoming the most likely way for criminals to steal financial information. They use websites, downloads, and compelling stories to lure consumers to links that will download malware – especially on computers that don’t use adequate security software. The most common way these viruses enter your computer is through phishing – an email with links or attachments that when clicked on install malware on your computer. These programs can cause your device to crash, or record your keystrokes and even control your online activity. Read your emails carefully before clicking on a link or attachment, especially if an email comes from out of the blue or asks for personal or financial information.