Technology advances and consumer habits have made it easier for identity thieves to steal personal information and wreak havoc on your financials before it gets detected.
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If your information gets in the wrong hands, a fraudster can recreate your identity and compromise your bank accounts and credit cards, and the consequences can be long-lasting.
Account and credit card numbers, passwords and answers to security questions are critically important to protect, says Bob Welther, assistant vice president of Risk Consulting at ACE Private Risk Services.
Although online banking has been around for the past 20 years and is pretty secure, the industry is moving towards mobile phones and tablets, says Mike Urban, director of Financial Crime Solutions at Fiserv, and those platforms aren’t as secure.
But not all identity theft happens on the high tech level. In fact, Joe Reynolds, identity fraud product manager at insurer Travelers, says many people become victims through old-fashioned theft like stolen mail, wallets or purses.
“Identity thieves really do gain a lot of personal info by digging through trash,” says Reynolds. Anything with personal information should be shredded: return address stickers, receipts, bank statements, invoices, and credit card offers.
“Keep door and drawers secure—wherever you’re keeping personal info like birth certificates and Social Security cards,” says Reynolds. Keep these discretely stored if not secured and don’t carry your Social Security number or card in your wallet. If asked, experts suggest providing a Social Security number only when absolutely necessary.
Protect Your Network
With more information moving online, it’s important to make sure all wireless access points are protected, recommends Urban.
Use strong passwords and change them often. “If [your password’s] something you can easily remember, it’s also something that can be easily cracked,” says Welther.
Use a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers and special characters in your password. Avoid any words that can be found in dictionaries or names of favorite sports teams or pets since there’s software that can crack anything found in dictionaries or associated with an individual.
“Change your password at least every six months and don’t have the same password for longer than a year,” recommends certified public accountant Ernest Almonte. Have a different password for every website and don’t leave them out for everyone to see.
Be Wary Of Emails and Texts
“Be very cautious of links or attachments that look suspicious,” says Welther. “Even if it comes from friends or family, if it’s a suspicious looking link or attachment, do not click on it. If you receive that email from your bank or a different institution and it looks official, don’t access your account or try to gain access to our account using the link in the email.”
If you receive a suspicious email or text, Almonte recommends calling the number on the company’s legitimate website or provided on the back of a credit card. “Don’t ever give your personal information [like Social Security number or birthdate] unless you initiated the call,” says Almonte.
Create multiple accounts on your laptop. When setting up your computer, Urban suggests creating a new user for anyone who will use your laptop in addition to the “Administrator” account. Logging on as a regular user can help to prevent Malware installations since an installation will prompt users for the administrator password. Malware allows a criminal to have access to your device without your permission, and some programs look when you enter credit card info.
Keep software current. Install updates to operating systems on laptops and devices as they come out, says Urban, since these keep security protections current. Consider installing Malware detection software on your PC or Mac as an added layer of protection.
Check Credit Reports
Experts suggest reviewing your credit reports annually through AnnualCreditReport.com. Monitoring services can alert you when you or your family’s identify is in jeopardy, says Welther, and some insurance carriers have identity protection services. Checking your credit report will alert you if there’s any suspicious activity.
Protect Personal Info on Social Media
We share everything online and scammers work to compile this information to figure out passwords and open accounts.
“Often, through various systems, the answers [to security questions] can be found through pubic domains,” says Welther. Since hackers can get a new password if they’re able to identify you as you through the security questions, use different security questions for different institutions.
Watch Your Credit Card
Although challenging in a restaurant, make sure your credit card always stays in plain view so that in a store, you know your information’s not being compromised, says Welther.
Instead of signing the back, write “See ID” instead to limit a thief’s damage. Check to make sure receipts don’t include your entire credit card number and scratch this info out if they do.
Be Careful With Public Wi-Fi
Welther cautions against logging onto any bank or credit card accounts on a public Wi-Fi network since your keystrokes can be monitored. If the logon and password are saved on your device, it’s even easier to steal this information.
“If you’re using a public network in a coffee shop or airplane, make sure you’re working as privately as possible—make sure no one’s looking over your shoulder,” says Welther.
What to do if Your Identity’s Stolen
“If you feel that your identity has been stolen or compromised, there are numerous steps that you should pursue immediately,” says Welther. Contact your financial institutions that may be involved, the three credit bureaus, law enforcement and your insurance carrier to check whether you’ve identity fraud coverage.
If your data is compromised because of an electronic transaction, you are protected against any fraud on your account under Regulation E and will, most likely, be reimbursed for charges against your credit cards or bank accounts.