The electronic world we live in is overflowing with potential security risks. Whether you bank online, on your mobile device, or even in person, you and your personal data could be vulnerable to attack.
The easiest and probably most lucrative of all the scams being used today involves identity theft. Thieves only have to find out your key information to start an attack. Armed with your information, the thief could fraudulently buy goods, withdraw money from accounts, file taxes or get medical services. With your medical information, thieves could not only get medical attention at your expense, they could issue fraudulent billing to be reimbursed from your policy. Thieves have also been known to steal information to create phony accounts online. With stolen credit-card numbers, they can buy or withdraw money from accounts before the victim, the merchant, or the financial institution is aware that it’s gone. They could even open an account in your name. Fortunately, credit-card companies are now more alert than ever to unusual kinds of purchases by each card holder, but, most typically, many small purchases, rather than a few big ones, could be done rather quickly without being caught by fraud departments.
There is no age limit to fraud victims. Child social security numbers could be used and the thefts go undetected for years. Seniors are particularly tempting targets because they tend to be trusting.
So, given the sophistication of today’s thieves and scammers, how can you keep your identity from them, keep your money, and keep your peace of mind? Here are some tips to protect your identity:
- Collect mail promptly. Don’t let it sit in your mailbox any longer than it has to. If you go on vacation, either stop delivery while you’re gone or have someone trusted pick it up daily for you.
- Keep track of billing and statement cycles. Missing statements may be caused by identity thieves submitting change-of-address forms to the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). The mail may be diverted to hide charges from the victim or intercept private financial documents mailed to the victim.
- Always look at your monthly statements. Check all transactions for accuracy and immediately report anything suspicious. Keep your statements in a secure place.
- Shred your financial documents. Any piece of paper with personal financial information should be put through a shredder or scissor-cut before being thrown out. Preapproved credit card applications should never be placed in the trash unless destroyed first. Plastic cards such as credit and debit cards should be cut up and destroyed.
- Make sure your financial institutions have your current address and telephone number. If suspicious account activity is spotted by one of your financial institutions, you will need to be contacted right away.
- Be discreet about what kind of information — and how much — you share on social networks, such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Longtime social-networking users have been found to be almost twice as likely as newcomers to be vulnerable to ID theft. For some reason, they drop their guard on networking sites where thieves are patrolling. Put privacy settings at their highest levels and do not share potentially important personal information, such as birth date or answers to frequent security questions — mother’s maiden name or pet's names, for example.
- Be alert to “phishing” scams — that is, where scammers get victims to click onto virus-laden links or attachments thanks to personal information planted in an email, for example. The information could have been collected from social-networking sites, for instance. A common scam is where the thieves claim to be from the government, or the police, and you’re told a relative is in trouble and needs money for bail. Check with authorities on any such lines being thrown your way.
- Internet fraud. Never enter personal information into a web page unless you have entered the web page address yourself — and then only on a secured website. Beware of emails asking for personal financial information. Instead, call the company or enter their web address directly into your web browser.
- Maintain anti-virus and anti-malware (viruses and harmful programs) software to deter the theft of information. Consumers should always decline when asked to save the password while logging on to a financial website.
- Create intricate passwords for online transactions. Computers in the hands of thieves can zip through volumes of possible passwords in moments. Don’t make it easy for them. Alternating uppercase and lowercase letters, interspersing numbers randomly and using special keystrokes are advisable. Multiple passwords are also recommended to limit damage beyond one account.
- Do not respond to unsolicited phone calls. Never give out your personal information to someone unless you placed the call. If an unsolicited phone call sounds legitimate, ask for the person's name, position and phone number, then call your financial institution.
- Review your credit report at least once a year. Free credit reports are available every 12 months at annualcreditreport.com. Report any suspected information theft to police, pertinent government agencies, financial institutions, credit-reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion), and the state attorney general’s office.
- Don’t carry your Social Security card, passport or birth certificate. Keep these documents in a secured place unless needed. Avoid giving out your Social Security Number wherever possible.
- When conducting ATM transactions, be aware of anyone who may be looking over your shoulder for passwords or numbers.
- Protect your PIN and passwords for credit and debit cards. Memorize your PINs and passwords, instead of writing them down. Do not use PINs and passwords that can be personally connected to you — such as your SSN, phone number, address, names of family members or friends, or cars. Passwords should include letters and numbers where possible.
- Don’t keep all your credit and debit cards in your purse or wallet. Carry only the cards you would need in an emergency. Then, if your purse or wallet is stolen, only the stolen cards will need to be cancelled.
Identity theft is one of the bad consequences of the world of electronic networking. When new openings appear, there is always a dishonest person looking to exploit it for fast, easy, robust gain. Follow these guidelines, though, and your security will be much harder to compromise.