The number one consumer complaint at the Federal Trade Commission last year was identity theft. We hear about it all the time, and unfortunately, the problem is only getting worse. Scammers are getting wiser, so as consumers, we need to as well. The following tips are helpful in minimizing your risk of becoming a victim of the multitude of types of identity theft out there.
- Open your credit card bills and bank statements right away. Check carefully for any unauthorized charges or withdrawals and report them immediately.
- Call if bills don’t arrive on time. It may mean that someone has changed contact information to hide fraudulent charges.
- Stop pre-approved credit card offers. They make a tempting target for identity thieves who steal your mail. Have your name removed from credit bureau marketing lists.
- Frequently monitor your credit history. You can get one free credit report every year from each of the three national credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions when a business or agency asks for your personal information. Ask how it will be used. Ask how it will be shared, and how it will be protected.
- Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet. If your health plan (other than Medicare) or another card uses your Social Security number, ask the company for a different number.
- Scam artists “phish” for victims by pretending to be banks, stores or government agencies. They do this over the phone, in e-mails and in the regular mail. Do not respond to any request to verify your account number or password.
- Conduct a thorough clean-up of your wallet. Remove any unnecessary credit cards, your Social Security card, and other unneeded documents that could compromise your identity if they were lost or stolen while on vacation. If you have a Medicare card, make a photocopy without the last 4 digits of your Social Security number.
- Create strong passwords and change them frequently. This is obvious, but regularly ignored. Your password should be more than eight characters in length and contain capital letters, lowercase letters and at least one non-alphabetical character. Using non-dictionary words is also suggested. Never create passwords that contain your personal information – and change it often.
- Use one credit card for all online purchases. This will make it easier to monitor charges and identity any red flags (which means you will likely catch any suspicious activity quicker, too).
- Never use your debit card while paying for anything online. In the event that you do find fraudulent charges, credit cards offer more protection and less risk as funds are not being withdrawn directly from your bank account as it is with a debit card.
- Shop only on familiar and trusted websites. Always check the authenticity of a site prior to purchasing anything off of it. If the company is unfamiliar, investigate their legitimacy by searching the company name.
- Check for your browser’s security lock symbol. Double click the lock on or near the address bar to display the website’s security certificate. If the name on the certificate and the address of the website do not match, then the website might be fake.
- Be cautious using free Wi-Fi hotspots. As unnerving as it is, a free hotspot might exist solely for the purpose of stealing personal data. If you’re at a hotel or a coffee shop and want to use their Wi-Fi, do not enter or access any of your personal information while on it – if the connection is unencrypted, this means other people can also access it. When traveling, the DSL connection in your hotel room is generally more secure than any free Wi-Fi network you may find in the hotel lobby.
- Use a personal firewall and keep it updated. Firewalls block unauthorized access to your computer’s information. You must be sure to keep it up to date though, as hackers are constantly creating new ways to infiltrate your computer.
- Keep phone and laptop software up to date because updates frequently contain security patches. Identity thieves are always creating new ways to access data that is not theirs; having up to date software will help prohibit this.
- Be on alert for deceptive emails or pop-ups. Cybercriminals will attempt to acquire your personal information by luring you to a website that looks legitimate. If you receive any emails from an unfamiliar source or receive any suspicious pop-ups, do not click on the links or open any attachments.
- Be careful about using peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing programs which are popular targets for identity thieves. P2P file sharing is the distribution and sharing of digital media, such as books, music, movies, and games. A P2P software program searches for other connected computers to locate the desired content which could contain viruses or other malware
- Invest in Internet security software whether you are on a PC or Mac. Turn your Mac’s firewall on (the default setting has it turned off).
- Don’t click on pop-up windows that claim your computer is infected. Don’t even click on the “X” to close the pop-up box. Instead, immediately force quit your browser. On a PC, hit “control, alt, delete” and select the Task Manager to close the browser. On a Mac, you select “Force Quit” under the Apple menu and force quit Safari.
- Beware of public computers. Malware that can memorize your keystrokes could be lurking inside. Unless you know that the computer at a library, youth hostel, hotel, or other public place is safe, don’t enter any personal information or to login to sensitive financial or email accounts. a
- If a site has an “http” and an “https” address, choose the “https” address. The “https” URL is the secure version of the site, which means that your information will be encrypted or scrambled, protecting it from hackers.
- Watch out for phishing websites, which may ask you to enter your personal information. A phishing website – or a “spoofed” site – tries to steal your account password or other confidential information by tricking you into believing you’re on a legitimate website.
- Use firewall, virus and spyware protection software that you update regularly. Backdoors, key-loggers and other dangerous programs can allow entry to your system and they can be installed many different ways. The only way to be sure to protect against them is to install both anti-virus and anti-malware; vendors often have solutions that include both.
Social Media Tips
- Never accept default settings. Provide the least amount of information necessary to use the site and set your privacy settings to the highest level. Scammers frequently use social networking sites to gather information to answer security questions so that they can gain access to even more of your personal information.
- Be cautious of what you post online. Never post vacations plans, your address, phone number, driver’s license number or, of course, your Social Security number on your profile. Remember that once you post information online, you can’t take it back, and identity thieves often use social networking sites to gather information to answer the security questions required to change your password. Don’t make it easy for them!
- Only accept requests from people you already know and trust. Even if they are a “friend of a friend,” they are still a stranger.
- Read privacy and security policies closely. Some major social networking sites use (and even sell) information about you to match advertisements to your interests.
- Verify emails and links in emails you get that seem to come from your social networking site. These are often designed to gain access to your user name, password, and ultimately your personal information.
- Install a firewall, reputable anti-spam and anti-virus software to protect your information and computer. Social networks are notoriously used by scammers to distribute malware and viruses.
- If you want to recommend an article to Facebook friends, cut and paste the URL into a Facebook post rather than clicking to share the link. Using the share link could inadvertently leak information about your Facebook account.
- Leave all cards with Social Security Numbers on them at home. Avoid pickpocketing and only carry items in your wallet or purse that are absolutely necessary.
- Don’t leave personal documents in checked luggage. Utilize a TSA-approved lock and carry important items with you.
- Make copies of all your important documents (passport, itinerary, reservation confirmations, credit cards, etc.). Leave the copies with trusted family and friends before you leave so that they can help you contact the appropriate third parties in case your wallet and/or bags are stolen.
- Do not use or carry debit cards when traveling. If your debit card is stolen, then the account could immediately be emptied, preventing you from obtaining cash if needed.
- Do not carry more than two credit cards. One will serve as a back-up should the other become damaged or be shut down by the issuer. (Non-fraudulent events can occur that cause issuers to opt for shutting down a person’s account, which would leave travelers without access to funds).
- Check your bank and credit card activity from a secure online connection and/or at an ATM at least once during the trip. This will help you quickly detect whether you have become a victim of “skimming.” Skimming often occurs in restaurants and bars where copies of the magnetic strip are made in order to make a counterfeit card.
- Ask your Post Office or a trusted neighbor to hold your mail for you. Mail that is left in an unlocked mailbox is a goldmine for identity thieves. It also sends a signal to potential burglars that your house is vacant.
- Use the hotel’s safe to store all valuables. This includes anything that contains personal identity information that could be used by identity thieves.
- Alert your card issuers that you are traveling. Most card companies—with the notable exception of American Express—ask that you to tell them where and when you’ll be traveling.
- If you are bringing your laptop with you, be very careful when going online using Wi-Fi networks. Most Wi-Fi hotspots are unsecured and unencrypted. You should take additional steps to protect your privacy.
- If you are using cyber-cafés, hotel business centers, or other public access Internet facilities, be aware that key-loggers may be tracking you. Public access facilities may use servers that aren’t encrypted. Therefore, never access any sensitive information from a public computer.
- Create temporary trip passwords for all accounts you may access on the road. Change passwords every three to four days over a secure connection. If you use Skype or similar programs over free Wi-Fi when traveling abroad, change those passwords more frequently.
Tax Return Tips
- Don’t wait to file your taxes – file early! Fraudsters try to beat people to their real return. If you owe money and want to pay as late as possible, you can still file your return early and then mail in the payment by check by the annual April deadline.
- Always protect your social security number, and those of your children. If a form you are filling out asks for it, you don’t have to provide it most of the time.
- Safeguard your medical and health insurance information. If you keep copies of your medical or health insurance records, make sure they’re secure, whether they’re on paper in a desk drawer or electronic in a file online.
- Always be sure to properly dispose of what you no longer need. This means shredding documents that contain your personal information before you dispose of them. Identity thieves can sometimes get all the info they need from your trash. It’s also a good idea to destroy the labels on your prescription bottles before disposal.
- Examine your Explanation of Benefits (EOBs). Review every EOB statement sent by your health insurer. If you see treatments you never received, immediately notify your insurer and medical providers.
- Monitor your insurance benefits. Ask your insurer for a listing of benefits paid out under your policy. Do this at least once a year.
- Check your medical records. If you suspect you’re a victim of medical ID fraud, get a copy of your records from your doctor, hospital, pharmacy or laboratory.
- Correct inaccurate medical records .If you find errors in your medical files, have them corrected immediately. Also realize that your physician, hospital, insurance company, medical lab and others may have the same inaccurate information. Try to track down all possible sources.
- Pack a shredder with your college students’ things and encourage them to use it to destroy any information that is personally sensitive. Also, get them a personal safe to store private documents.
- Keep dorm room locked and don’t let others into the dorm building whom you do not know. If a roommate is having his or her friends over, be sure to put all your personal paperwork away and out of sight.
- Keep your computer secure. Make sure your computer is inaccessible without a password and that your computer is operating on a secure wireless network and behind a firewall.
- Be just as vigilant with portable media devices that may contain sensitive information such as USB keys and DVDs. If there is sensitive information on them, don’t leave them lying around and if there is a need to dispose of them, be sure to completely destroy any data on them.
- If you’re using the public computer be sure to clear the cookies once you’re finished. Also make sure the “keep me signed in” box is not checked when logging in on public computers.
- Students and their parents should inquire about the data storage policies at the university. Especially given the number of data breaches at universities over the past few years.