Actively Avoiding Identity Theft is a Modern-Day Necessity
As modern life grows more connected, the threat of identity theft grows more pronounced. With so much sensitive data shared in society, modern-day conveniences demand up-to-date precautions for avoiding identity theft. Here are eight tips for protecting yourself.
1. Be Careful Who Your Friends Are
Social media is a prime battleground when it come to keeping personal info away from thieves and avoiding identity theft. How many Facebook friends do you have? How did you meet them? Do you know all of them in real life? Most Facebook users likely start out with a few friends they know from real life, steadily building the list over time to include not only real-life friends, but also family, professional and casual acquaintances, friends of friends and “virtual” friends—people they’ve never actually met.
These last two categories—friends of friends and virtual friends—are especially problematic in terms of security and privacy. Gaining acceptance into established groups is a crafty way for criminals to establish credibility and trust among large numbers of potential victims. If a real-life coworker and friend among your Facebook connections knows and trusts someone enough to “friend” them, that individual must be safe for you to add, too, right? Not so fast.
According to data from Facebook, there are some 270 million fake accounts on the network. Such accounts can be used for a number of purposes, most of them with deceptive, if not outright fraudulent intent. With so many fake accounts, you put yourself in real jeopardy by having people on your friends list you don’t know and/or whom you’ve never met in real life. It’s a good idea to review friend lists on all social media accounts and verify each person’s connection to you and if he/she should remain.
2. Lock Down Social Media Privacy Settings
In the online struggle aimed at avoiding identity theft, social media privacy settings are the front line of defense. For maximum protection, these settings should always be adjusted to prevent anyone and everyone beyond direct contacts from seeing your posts and information. Identity thieves search social media for any bit of information that’s public they might be able to use to compromise your security. What’s more, many social media users don’t realize that any pictures posted publicly on social media are just that—public and free game for use virtually anywhere by anyone who visits the profile.
Your best bet is to set all privacy settings so that only your friends (and not “friends of friends”) can see your posts or other shared information. In the age of social media, avoiding identity theft means never accepting friend requests from people you don’t know—ever.
3. Guard Social Security Numbers Like Your Life Depends on It
There are few pieces of information more valuable to identity thieves than a Social Security number and avoiding identity theft means vigorously protecting this personal identifier both online and in the real world. These numbers, combined with a few bits and pieces of other personal information gathered here and there, can serve as the foundation for serious, damaging fraudulent activity. How serious? How about a fraudulent tax return filed with the victim’s name and Social Security number to generate a big refund that goes to and disappears with the thief? Or what about loans in the victim’s name that never get paid back? Such crimes can cause severe damage to the victim’s reputation, financial security and credit rating. And adult Social Security numbers aren’t the only ones at risk. If you have minor children, it’s important to guard their Social Security numbers as urgently as you guard your own. If their numbers fall into the hands of an identity thief, their credit could be ruined before they ever get a first job or open a bank account.
Never share Social Security numbers on social media or anywhere else on the internet unless absolutely necessary (like when applying for credit) and then, only over a secure connection on a site with https (the “s” signifies “security) encryption. Never carry Social Security cards in your wallet or purse, either. Put them someplace safe and locked away where only you have access. Never provide a Social Security number to anyone who unexpectedly or randomly asks for it online, in an email, over the phone or via text message.
4. Be Careful on Public Wi-Fi (and Always Use a VPN)
Generally speaking, public Wi-Fi is the most unsecure way to use the web; and avoiding identity theft online means taking certain precautions when using one of these vulnerable networks. We go a bit more in depth about the dangers of public Wi-Fi in this month’s next blog. For now, though, the most important thing to remember about using public hotspots is that any website you visit, any data you enter has the possibility of being tracked and intercepted by hackers.
That’s why it’s important to install a virtual private network (VPN) on your device and log into it every time you use the internet over one of these networks. VPNs are extremely effective and work by establishing a secure, secondary network within any network—public or private—the user logs onto. A VPN will not only protect you from prying eyes over public Wi-Fi, but will also provide an additional layer of privacy and security over a secure, encrypted internet connection.
5. Regularly Review Your Credit Reports and Bills
One of the best means of avoiding identity theft is the aggressive oversight of personal spending and credit. Every US consumer is entitled to three free copies of his/her credit report a year—one from each of the major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and Transunion. Consumers can request all three reports at once or space them out over the course of a year (we recommend the latter). Many credit cards offer a free estimate of your current credit score, too, along with a general overview of credit fitness.
Review your credit report closely, scrutinizing it for any unfamiliar or improper charges. If you spot anything, there are procedures in place to help resolve disputes and correct inaccuracies. Don’t hesitate to contact the reporting agencies and get the process started.
You should be looking just as closely at all monthly credit card and bank statements. Does each charge, credit and withdrawal align with your records? Most banks and credit card companies allow consumers to do up-to-date internet tracking, too; it pays to take advantage of this feature. If you spot a discrepancy on any account, call your bank or credit card company as soon as possible—the more quickly you catch unauthorized charges or withdrawals, the greater your chances of getting your money back or preventing fraudulent activity altogether.
6. Pay Your Bills Online
In the early days of the internet, when encryption standards weren’t nearly as sophisticated as today, paying bills online might have seemed a questionable strategy for avoiding identity theft. Times have changed. These days, doing business online can decrease your exposure and risk. How? Paper checks sent through the mail can be intercepted by a resourceful identity thief, and that’s all he needs to illegally siphon money from your account. Paying online can be safe if you A) do business with reputable companies whose sites use up-to-date https encryption; B) be mindful of phishing scams and learn to watch for the signs (for more on how to spot a phishing scam, visit our blog post from January); C) use a robust, full-featured antivirus software package and keep it updated.
7. Avoid the TMI Trap
In this era of instant sharing and updating, many of us are guilty of disclosing too much information (TMI) to our friend lists. Given how easy it is to divulge the details of our lives nowadays, this is an easy trap to fall into; however, if you’re serious about avoiding identity theft, TMI is a trap you should relentlessly strive to sidestep. Remember, cybercriminals are out there lurking, searching for any scrap of information they can collect to compromise your security and steal your identity. If you happen to have an imposter among your social media connections, this danger is severely amplified. Before you post or share something on the internet, ask yourself: Could an identity thief somehow use the information I’m about to post to exploit my privacy and steal personal information? If the answer is anything other than a definitive “no,” the best option is not to post.
8. Use Strong, Robust Passwords and Never Reuse Them
The only thing that stands between your online accounts and avoiding identity theft is a strong password. If that password gets hacked, thieves can gain entry into your life and privacy in ruinous ways. Worse, many cybercriminals hack and steal user passwords not to break into the accounts, but to offer the stolen credentials on illicit “marketplaces” in seedier corners of the web. These sites sell victim account numbers to untold numbers of criminals. You can help avoid such intrusions by creating strong passwords of at least eight characters that employ a mix of lower- and uppercase letters, numbers, and symbols. It’s imperative to avoid using passwords on more than one site each, too. For more on creating strong passwords, visit our December blog “Five Tips for Creating a Strong Password.”
Financial Security and Privacy: Among Life’s Most Important Assets
With the proliferation of the internet and social media, fraud and identity theft have become more widespread than ever. Safeguarding oneself against the threat requires diligence, but it’s worth the effort and isn’t terribly difficult. The payoff is strong financial security and personal privacy, both of which are among modern life’s most indispensable assets.