Ways to Avoid Fraud and Identity Theft
Data and identity theft is a constant threat that can affect anyone at any time. Below are several methods you can implement to help reduce the risk of having your data and identity stolen.
Be on the alert for phishing emails and texts
"Phishing" is one of the oldest tricks in the book, yet it still works frequently enough for fraudsters to continue trying it. The term applies to any attempt by someone using an electronic communication to obtain sensitive information by impersonating a trustworthy company or organization.
In the beginning, phishing efforts typically took the form of emails and phone calls pretending to be from legitimate businesses. In recent years, text messages have become a more common and, in some ways, a craftier method. Phishing texts on a smartphone are doubly dangerous. Clicking on a malicious link can not only lead to a false website capturing your information, but also may allow malware to get into your device and steal information from it, including the credentials to all of your apps.
If you receive a text message warning you about a suspicious transaction on your account, call the phone number on the back of your credit or debit card immediately to confirm the validity of the alert. If the message was not sent by your financial institution or credit card company, delete the message.
Protect your passwords and Social Security Number
According to CNN, there are over 23 million people using “123456” as their password. Millions more are using “qwerty,” “password” and other codes that would be easy to crack by any determined hacker. Even if your password is not quite so obvious, things like your mother’s maiden name or favorite NFL team aren’t that difficult to hack either.
To play it safe, experts say it’s best to use a random combination of letters, numbers and special characters. It’s also recommended that you use a different password for each account; no matter how tempting it is to just memorize and continually reuse just one lengthy chain of keystrokes.
It’s also imperative that you are vigilant about protecting your Social Security number, which often serves as the master key to your personal data. Whenever you are asked to provide your Social Security Number, question why it is needed and how it will be protected. Don’t give it to any institutions you don’t trust. Be sure to keep your physical card in a safe location and do not carry it with you.
Review what you share on social media
One of the hallmarks of the digital age is people documenting and sharing their lives online. Regardless of how you feel about the modern tendency to make private details public, putting personal information on the internet makes it significantly easier for others to assume your identity.
Think carefully about what you publicize on social media and how criminals can use it assume your identity. If your full name, family members and birthdate can all be publicly viewed on Facebook, you are making an identity thief’s job even easier. It’s also not wise to post vacation photos on social media while you are away, because it can alert more traditional criminals that it may be a good time to burglarize your home.
Don’t let physical documents fall into the wrong hands
Thieves are not only looking to steal your information electronically; there are still many out there willing to swipe your personal information the old-fashioned way.
One of the simplest of ways a criminal can steal your information is to swipe the contents of your mailbox. It’s a good idea to request a pause of your deliveries from your local post office when you are out of town. You may also want to consider a U.S. Postal Service-approved lockable mailbox or sign up for Informed Delivery through the USPS, which allows you to see a preview of your mail in order to let you know if anything is missing.
When the mailbox proves less than fruitful, some identity thieves may resort to rummaging through the garbage can instead. Use a shredder to destroy any credit card or bank statements or pre-approved offers of credit before you toss them away. Some junk mail may need to be shredded too if it contains personal information.
Freeze or lock your credit report for free
To reduce the opportunity for identity theft, or to protect your identity from further misuse in the event your identity has been stolen, you can restrict access to your credit report by placing a credit freeze, or security freeze, on your credit report file. While a freeze is in place, no one can open new credit accounts using your personal information. A freeze remains on your file until you remove it. You must contact all three credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – to have a freeze placed on your file. There is no charge to place a freeze on your file.
You can also place fraud alerts on your credit report. If a fraud alert has been placed on your file, a business must verify your identity before it can extend credit using your name/information. Fraud alerts remain on your account for one year, after which time the alert can be renewed. An extended fraud alert option is also available. This type of alert remains in place for seven years.
Active duty service members can also place an active duty fraud alert on their file. The alert remains in place for one year and can be renewed for the length of deployment.
You must contact one of the three major reporting bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, to have an alert placed on your file. The bureau that you contact must notify the other two to place an alert on your file. There is no charge to place an alert on your file.
All three credit bureaus also offer an app that lets users lock or unlock their credit via their smartphone. Though similarly free and more convenient than freezing your credit, locking is generally considered a weaker safeguard, as you may have less legal protection with a lock versus a freeze.
From the personal information in your physical mailbox to the phishing attempts in your email inbox, thieves and hackers have many avenues for attack on your identity and credit. Being aware and implementing the steps above to block would-be criminals will better protect you from the risk of fraud and identity theft.