Culture

7 Easy Ways to Avoid Identity Theft

It seems as if we hear of another data breach every couple of weeks. Hackers are gaining access to consumers’ personal and sensitive information with frightening frequency these days, and it seems as if no one is safe. Everyone’s favorite super store, Target, was the victim of a massive data breach in 2013. In 2014, Yahoo was hit and 500 million accounts were compromised. In fact, there is a list of companies that have been targeted, and chances are that you weren’t even aware of most of them. So what does that mean for you?

Most experts in identity theft will admit that there is no foolproof way to protect yourself completely. In this digital age, your information is in far too many places for you to completely safeguard it. (See the companies mentioned above, for starters.) There are, however, steps that you can take to make it more difficult for a thief to get a hold of your data. While you might not be able to make it impossible for someone to take over your accounts or your identity, you certainly don’t need to just hand them your Social Security number, either. A big issue with being the victim of such a crime is that it can take several months to sort it all out. It is unsurprisingly difficult to clear your name (and your credit) after an identity theft.

As Nick Clements mentions in his Forbes article, “Identity Theft: How to Protect Yourself Or Resolve It,” there are two types of identity theft: account takeover and identity takeover. In the former, a hacker gains access to your online accounts and transfers money out of them. In the latter, someone finds your personal information (like your Social Security number) and opens credit cards and other lines of credit in your name. But here are some things you can do to protect your identity:

1. Be smart about what you do with your personal information

  • Don’t give out your Social Security number unless it is absolutely necessary. This includes doctor’s offices. It is ok to leave that line blank on your intake forms.
  • Don’t keep your Social Security card in your wallet.
  • Never put your Social Security number, any password, or other private information in an email, text, or any other request that you receive from a stranger. If a company with which you do business needs to verify your identity, they will most likely require you to log in directly through their website instead of in an email.
  • Keep other private information private as well. This includes anything that can be used as a password prompt: mother’s maiden name, first pet’s name, the street on which you grew up, your high school’s mascot, etc. There is no reason you should ever post this information, especially on Facebook (not even for a fun list that your friends invite you to complete).

2. Place a credit freeze on your credit report

Most people don’t realize that this very reliable tactic is even an option. Clements writes:

Consider placing a credit freeze on your credit report with all three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). That’s particularly worth considering if you don’t plan to apply for any credit cards, mortgages or credit lines in the near future. A credit freeze (which you can read about on the FTC website) restricts access to your credit report. That makes it more difficult for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name.

3. Secure all of your devices and accounts with STRONG passwords

The shorter and more simple your password is, the easier it will be for a hacker to figure it out. Gone are the days when you can use the birthday of a loved one, or your son’s name. In “Identity Theft Protection: 10 Ways to Secure Your Personal Data,” R.L. Adams suggests using “different passwords that are strong for all the popular services that you use. Vary the letters, the casing, numbers and special characters in them. Make them as strong as possible to avoid one of the most common hacks around.”

4. Avoid free WiFi in public places

With a smartphone in hand, it is tempting to check your account balances or quickly set up a credit card payment while you’re waiting for your latte to be made, or for your friend to meet you for happy hour. But Adams points out a frightening reality:

Okay, I know that it’s enticing to use “free” public wifi, but did you know that this is one of the best-kept secrets for stealing all your personal information? All the hacker has to do is setup a remote wireless network called “free public wifi” or “free network” or something similar, in a heavily-trafficked location, and they can remotely grab all of your web-surfing data and even perform man-in-the-middle attacks. Stay away from these “free” networks at all costs.

5. If possible, do not give your phone number to strangers

Since most people keep their numbers for years, including when they change mobile services, phone numbers are increasingly used to access sensitive information. In “A 10-Digit Key Code to Your Private Life: Your Cellphone Number,” Steve Lohr writes

It is increasingly used as a link to private information maintained by all sorts of companies, including money lenders and social networks. It can be used to monitor and predict what you buy, look for online or even watch on television.

It has become “kind of a key into the room of your life and information about you,” said Edward M. Stroz, a former high-tech crime agent for the F.B.I. who is co-president of Stroz Friedberg, a private investigator.

Yet the cellphone number is not a legally regulated piece of information like a Social Security number, which companies are required to keep private. And we are told to hide and protect our Social Security numbers while most of us don’t hesitate when asked to write a cellphone number on a form or share it with someone we barely know.

6. Stop unsolicited credit card offers

Coming home to a pile of junk mail that includes a few credit card offers makes my skin crawl. I immediately shred the offers, and with good reason. Anyone can grab one of those offers out of your mailbox and open up a credit card in your name. Once they rack up a big bill, you’re the one who is responsible. Consumer Reports recommends taking this easy step:

You can stop credit bureaus from selling your name to lenders by going to www.optoutprescreen.com or calling 888-567-8688. Opting out should stop most offers, and it’s free.

7. Learn to identify identity theft

The sooner you identify a breach, the easier it is to handle it. In the very least, you should check your credit report every year. Don’t just glance at your score and move on. Be sure to check for any credit inquiries that were not originated by you. But if you want to be really proactive, it would be better to set up a credit alert. Here is what Clements suggests:

If you want a free credit monitoring service, you can try CreditKarma, which offers that in partnership with TransUnion. Once a new account or inquiry hits your credit report, you’ll be notified. Single-bureau monitoring should be sufficient. However, you can pay to monitor all three credit bureaus daily. Some services do it for as little as $9.99 a month.

Monitor the transactions on your accounts regularly (at least monthly) and report any suspicious transactions immediately. You might want to sign up for email or text message alerts so you receive notifications when suspicious transactions take place.

The thought of having your identity stolen is frightening, but don’t let it paralyze you. These steps are relatively easy and quick and can go a long way in protecting your most sensitive information from a hacker.