We’ve all gotten much better at locking our doors, arming our security systems and securing our purses and wallets when we are out in public. But when it comes to our cybersecurity, we’re not nearly as careful. Some 15.4 million consumers were victims of identity theft or fraud last year, with criminals getting their hands on nearly 16 billion of other people’s money, according to a new report from Javelin Strategy & Research. But don’t let the stats scare you—a few common sense, no-cost measures can shield you and your family from the financial headaches and losses of identity theft.
1. Create unique, complex passwords for each of your accounts. Thieves often test lists of passwords stolen in one breach against other accounts to see, for example, if your Amazon password is the one you use for your online banking. No one likes having to keep track of all of these passwords, but criminals like it even less, so it’s worth the aggravation.
2. Monitor your credit report annually. You’re entitled to one free credit report, once a year, from each of the three credit reporting agencies—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. This gives you the opportunity to check for any items that you don’t recognize—such as accounts, judgments, liens, collections, bankruptcies, and other possible markers of identity theft—and dispute all erroneous and fraudulent information. Go to annualcreditreport.com to access your free reports.
3. Date all electronic keypad signatures. Wherever you are asked to sign electronically—the grocery store, gym, or hair salon to name a few—add the date next to your name. This prevents criminals from lifting and using your signature on other days and in other places.
4. Never, ever list your social security number on checks, and don’t carry your card or number with you. Don’t write it in the memo section on checks (except to the IRS) or put it on non-credit applications or forms. The most damaging identity theft cases start with a name and a social security number in the wrong hands.
5. Don’t enter information online without knowing who you are dealing with. Criminals may pose as banks (complete with graphics and brand markings that look just like the real thing) retail businesses or even people you know like family members or coworkers. Even entering some information into a form without pressing send may allow unscrupulous individuals to gather that intell. And don’t make it easy for them: Don’t post your date of birth, mother’s maiden name, pet’s name, or other personal information on websites like Facebook or Twitter. They’re often used to verify your identity and could allow an imposter electronic access to your accounts.
6. Always review your statements. It’s no longer enough to wait for your monthly credit card or checking account statement to look for suspicious activity. Sign up for online access to your accounts and check each regularly. The faster you realize something is amiss, the quicker your card company can put a stop to it.
7. Remove bar codes from magazines or shipping labels and shred them. Do the same with your boarding pass. Bar codes can contain volumes of information about you, including the last 4 digits of your credit card, or in the case of a boarding pass, your entire frequent flyer number, which can be used for deeper hacking.
8. Don’t leave a paper trail. Gather all receipts, including those from the ATM and gas pumps, and shred them.
9. Stop unsolicited credit card offers. Low-tech crooks can steal your identity by making off with the preapproved credit offers from your mailbox. They open the account in your name, then watch your mailbox to grab the new card you didn’t know was coming. You can stop credit bureaus from selling your name to lenders by going to optoutprescreen.com or calling 888-567-8688. Opting out should stop most offers, and it’s free.
10. A last tactic to consider: Placing a credit freeze with Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. This drastic measure prevents anyone—including you—from opening new lines of credit in your name. This means you won’t be able to take advantage of those instant 25% off offers if you apply for a credit card while shopping, or any other type of credit or loan you might need, without notifying the agencies in advance and allowing for processing, so it’s not a measure to take lightly.
Special thanks to Advantage Credit, Inc. for assistance in preparing identity theft protection tips.