Between careless clicks, falling for scams, and companies’ data breaches your identity is under escalating threat as crooks find ever more ways to use your information.
And the Holidays represent prime hunting for thieves.
In fact, the onslaught is so aggressive that Identity theft claims more than 15 million victims a year in the U.S, and has become the fastest growing crime in the country. And it costs an average of $3,500 for victims to restore their identities, according to new data by the Hanover Insurance Group.
That of course doesn’t include the aggravation and increased risk victims will have to live with for the rest of their lives. That increase in risk is due to the amount of information about you that doesn’t change. Typically, ID theft victims only change their credit card numbers and PINs. A few change their password(s) and even fewer change their Social Security Number (it’s hard to do). But you can’t change your birthdate, your name, your mother’s maiden name, your address, your employer, etc., and these pieces of information help future thieves re-associate the information needed to impersonate you.
As your making your lists, and checking them twice, review this 9 step checklist to deter ID thieves:
- Secure your computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones with anti-virus, anti-spyware, and security tools.
Keep them current and use them unfailingly-as automatically as locking your door when you leave the house. A computer that does not have security software installed and up-to-date will become infected with malicious software in an average of four minutes. That malicious software will steal your information and put you at risk for crimes.
- You must have anti-virus and anti-spyware software installed and up-to-date. If your computer or phone isn’t protected from Trojans, viruses and other malware, your financial information, passwords and identity will be stolen.
- Secure your internet connection – Make sure your computer’s firewall is on. If you use a wireless network it needs to be encrypted so someone who is lurking outside the house can’t collect your information. Never use a public WiFi service for any type of financial transaction or other type of sensitive information transfer.
- Use caution on public WiFi hotspots. Do not log onto sensitive sites (banking, shopping…) from an unsecured connection. When using a public computer, uncheck the box for remembering your information.
- Use strong, unique passwords for every site. Creating strong memorable passwords is easy and can actually be fun – and the payoff in increased safety is big. The key aspects of a strong password are length (the longer the better); a mix of letters, numbers, and symbols; and no tie to your personal information. Learn how with my blog Safe passwords don’t have to be hard to create; just hard to guess.
- Watch your surroundings. Pay attention to who is around you so that they do not see you type your passwords, credit card numbers, PIN’s, etc., or read sensitive information you may be sharing.
- Put a credit freeze on your accounts. Block ID thieves from opening new accounts under your name by freezing or blocking access to your credit files. Learn more about creating a credit freeze here.
- Pay attention to messaging risks.
- Think twice before you open attachments or click links in messages -even if you know the sender-as these can be used to transmit spam and viruses to your computer.
- Never respond to messages asking you to provide personal information, especially your account number or password, even if it seems to be from a business you trust. Reputable businesses will not ask you for this information in e-mail.
- Never click on links provided in messages, unless you are sure of the sender. Instead, use a search engine to find the website yourself.
- Don’t forward spam. Whether it’s a cute ‘thought of the day’, ‘set of jokes’, ‘amazing photo’, ‘recipe tree’ or similar email, if you don’t personally know the sender the email is surely a scam designed to collect the email accounts – and relationships – of everyone you share it with.
- Don’t trade personal information for “freebies.” Online freebies come in two forms:
- The free games, free offers, and ‘great deals’. Just as in the physical world, if these types of offers sound too good to be true, they probably are. Not only will these collect and sell your personal information, these ‘deals’, and ‘free’ applications are usually riddled with spyware, viruses or other malicious software.
- Through survey’s, sweepstakes, quizzes, and the like. These marketing tools are designed for one purpose – to get as much information from you as they can, so they can sell that to interested parties. Even the most innocuous ‘survey’s learn far more than you imagine, and they may give you malicious software or download tracking cookies, so just skip these entirely.
- Trust your instincts. Online and offline, your instincts play a critical role in your protection. If something feels ‘off’, go with your instinct. You don’t have to explain your reasoning to anyone.
- Shred sensitive documents. Do not throw bank statements, bills, or other sensitive material in the garbage.
Following these steps will significantly reduce your chances of falling victim to ID theft, but nothing will eliminate your risk entirely. This means that monitoring your credit reports is often the best way to identify whether you have fallen victim.
Check your credit reports. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you have the right to one free credit disclosure in every 12-month period from each of the three national credit reporting companies: Experian – http://www.experian.com/consumer-products/triple-advantage.html, Equifax – http://www.econsumer.equifax.com, TransUnion – http://www.truecredit.com/?cb=TransUnion&loc=2091
- Request a free credit report from one of the three companies for yourself, your spouse, and any minors over the age of 13 living at home to check for credit fraud or inaccuracies that could put you at financial risk. (Although exact figures are difficult to get, the latest data shows that at least 7 percent of identity theft targets the identities of children.) The easiest way to do this is through AnnualCreditReport.com.
- You can also pay for credit monitoring services that will alert you to any suspicious activity or changes in your credit scores.
If your identity has been stolen or compromised, take immediate action:
- Contact your credit card companies and financial institutions of all affected accounts. Monitor your accounts closely for any fraudulent charges or withdrawals and notify the companies immediately. Check to ensure charges are removed from your account, and retain documents of the incidents.
- If your Social Security number has been compromised, contact the Social Security Administration Inspector General, they will determine if you need to get a new number.
- Alert the credit bureaus and request a fraud alert be placed on your accounts. This will require that companies call you before opening a line of credit.
- Report the incident to the police, you should be asked to fill out an identity theft report, and you’ll want to keep a copy of that report as you may need to show this to prove to creditors that your identity was indeed stolen.
- Notify your health insurance company; don’t let your ID theft become medical ID theft!
- If the problem is large, consider hiring a reputable service that helps restore your credit.
- Recognize the emotional impact ID theft may have on you. Given the severity of an incident, and whether you knew the person who stole your identity or not, the emotional toll of dealing with ID theft can be high. Be sure to take care of yourself and to reach out to others for support if needed.
- Federal Trade Commission – http://www.ftc.gov/idtheft
- Identity Theft Resource Center – http://www.idtheftcenter.org
- Identity Theft Assistance Center – http://www.identitytheftassistance.org