How to Protect Your Identity
By Diane Tait
What’s in a name? More than most people think. Especially once their identity has been stolen. Identity theft is one of the scourges of modern society. Even worse, it’s one that’s getting more pervasive each and every year. Last year alone, the credit reporting agencies tallied up nearly $17 billion in losses due to identity theft. That’s nothing to say of the loss of credit worthiness to those whose identities were compromised, not to mention the laborious and costly process of reclaiming their identity. To help keep you from becoming a victim, I thought I’d provide you with ten ways to protect your identity from those who hope to profit by besmirching your good name.
1. Don’t make it easy. – While most people believe that cyberthieves spend their days locked in their rooms with their fingers on the keyboard trying to crack passwords, the real world of identity theft is a lot simpler. That’s because most identity thieves don’t need to hack you to gain access to your financial data. All they have to do is send an email purportedly from a trusted provider, such as an ISP or cellphone company and most people fall for the clickbait hook, line and sinker. Clicking on any spoofed link can quickly load malware onto your device that will provide an identity thief with the virtual keys to the vault. I nearly fell for one such trap a year ago when I received what I thought was a link from GoDaddy. Fortunately, I decided to call their customer service number instead of clicking on the link. The technician quickly informed me that the email hadn’t originated from them and was no doubt a phishing lure. Lesson learned.
2. How social are your social networks? – Even if you’d never think of clicking on a link, chances are a cybercriminal can gain access to a great deal of information just by friending you on one of your social nets. Most people are way too free when it comes to sharing personal information online. This can backfire, since a wily cyberthief can use this information to gain access to your accounts, or spoof others into thinking that they are dealing with you instead of an interloper.
3. Whos’ fooling who? – Speaking of interlopers, you’d be surprised at the ability of online crooks to mimic your websites and social nets. One of my friends recently had one of his friends call him to ask about the charity he was soliciting for online. My friend then said, “Charity? What charity?” It turns out that an identity thief had cloned one of his social sites to solicit donations from all his online friends. Fortunately, the phone call alerted him to the problem and he alerted the social net which quickly pulled down the cloned site. If you don’t keep track of your online assets, it won’t be long before someone either clones or hacks their way into them only to cause mischief. Always make sure your passwords are at least twelve characters long and include caps, numbers and special characters. Better yet, opt-in for 2-step authentication that sends a code to your cellphone.
4. Have you left the backdoor open? – Even if you use lengthy passwords and 2-step authentication on all your internet accounts, the means you use to access the web could let the crooks in the back door. Everything from internet routers to Wi-Fi hotspots can be hacked. When you set up your home or office Wi-Fi connection, did you change the security password, or did you simply use the device’s default setting? There are chatrooms that trade information on default settings used on most major wireless devices. If you use public hotspots, you’re really playing with fire, since these are routinely breached by hackers. The bottom line is you need to make sure every web-enabled device you use is protected and you should never use public hotspots. Better to use your cellphone to create a hotspot than to rely on someone else’s.
5. How can a crook get my bank account number? – This is easier than you might think. If you bank online, you’re vulnerable. Especially if you don’t have several layers of security on your devices or allow any of your security software to lapse. Smartphones are notoriously vulnerable since many people have little cybersecurity on these devices. An enterprising identity thief can also grab banking documents and even credit card applications from your mailbox. If you value your financial security, opt into paperless banking and tell your credit card companies to stop sending you offers for new cards.
6. How can thieves get my social security number? – Even worse than having your banking or credit card information compromised is to have your social security number stolen. With an SSN, a thief can impersonate you to open bank accounts, take out loans or even have your tax refund sent to them instead of you. Obtaining your number can be accomplished in several ways. You could fall for a phishing lure by someone purporting to be from the IRS or some other government entity. If you receive an email or a phone call from someone who claims to be with the government, don’t fall for this ruse. In the first place, the IRS or any other government agency will initially correspond via the US postal service. In the second place, they’ll never call to threaten you. Another way thieves can get your SSN is by purchasing it from anyone you trusted with it. That’s why I refuse to provide this information to healthcare providers or any other professional service with the exception of my accountant. It’s all too easy for a staffer to line his or her pocket at your expense by selling your information.
7. Check this out. – Most people don’t realize how easy it is to have their checks stolen. That’s because the majority of people order their checks by mail. All a thief has to do is hack into the account of your printer to order a set sent to them. Or they can snatch your checks right from your mailbox. When it comes to checks, you’re always better off picking them up in person rather than trusting them to the mail.
8. Spread the news. – What’s really scary is that some cyberthieves aren’t interested in using your personal financial data as they are in selling it to other crooks. There are sites on the dark web that make money by buying and selling this data to anyone who will pay. That’s why you need to invest a few bucks with a credit tracking company like LifeLock who monitor the web to let clients know if and when their personal or financial data is being bandied about online. Better to spend a few dollars a month than to take a hit that could wipe you out financially and reduce your credit to ashes.
9. The deep freeze – Another thing you can do to shore up your financial defenses is to call the three credit reporting agencies to freeze your credit. This will make it impossible for anyone (including you) to initiate additional credit. If you need to open a new account, you can call to unfreeze the account, then refreeze it again.
10. Your last shred of hope. – One of the easiest ways for thieves to cheat you blind is to rifle through your trash. Unless you shred all your medical correspondence, credit and banking information, not to mention any communiques from your accountant or the IRS, all a crafty identity thief has to do is collect your trash in the dead of night to rifle it for financial and personal data that can be used to rob you blind.
Diane Tait owns and operates A&B Insurance. To find out more about how you can save money on insurance, go to her site or fill out the form at right.