Identity theft continues to be one of the great crimes of the modern age. Just turn on your television, open the newspaper or visit any news website and you’re bound to find something concerning someone’s identity being stolen or a major data breach that put millions of people’s personal and financial information at risk. Identity theft has been at the top of US consumer complaint lists for nearly two decades and it seems to get worse every year.
Identity theft is a real concern for everyone. Even if it hasn’t happened to you yet, you likely know someone who has been affected by fraudulent use of their identity. Luckily, there are some simple ways you can reduce your chances of becoming a victim of ID theft.
1. Use Complex Passwords and Change Them Often
Easily guessed passwords are one of the easiest ways for criminals to gain access to your personal and financial information. It’s even easier if you use the same password for all of your bank, social media, email and other accounts. Avoid passwords that use your:
- Pet’s name
- Birthdates – yours or a family member
- Mother’s maiden name
- Name of school or work
- Your address
- Simple dictionary words
You don’t want your password to be something that is connected to your real life and could be easily guessed. A safer password will be something random that contains upper and lower case letters, numbers and maybe an alphanumeric character.
It’s also important to avoid using the same password for all of your accounts. Even strong passwords can be hacked if the hacker is persistent. If you use the same password for all of your accounts, once they hack one account, they’ll be able to get into all of your accounts.
Change your passwords frequently. At least once a year, but two or three times a year is even better.
2. Keep Personal and Financial Documents Secure
Many people store personal and financial documents on their computer. If you’re someone who does, make sure your computer is protected by installing a firewall along with anti-virus and anti-spyware software. These tools can keep people from infiltrating your system and snooping around or installing malicious code that gives them access to your information.
You also need to keep your browser up to date and ensure that your wireless network is secured with a strong password and/or encryption system.
If you’re disposing of personal or financial documents, shred or incinerate them before you toss them out. If you’re storing hard copies of documents, it’s best to put them in a safe place such as a safe with a lock. And don’t forget; never carry around your Social Security card unless it’s absolutely necessary.
3. Monitor Your Credit Report and Banking Accounts
The three major credit reporting agencies are required by law to provide you with a free credit report once every year. However, you have to request it. Make sure you request your credit report every year and inspect it for errors or accounts that you didn’t open. If it appears that your identity has been compromised, create a fraud alert with each of the three major credit reporting agencies. The alert will place a freeze on your information and make it more difficult for criminals to open new accounts while the matter is investigated. Make sure to also do a background check on yourself to ensure that the identity thieves haven’t taken your name for a criminal joy ride.
You should also monitor your bank and credit accounts closely. Many identity thieves will “test” your accounts by making small purchases before they go in for the kill and wipe you out. If you notice any unauthorized purchases or withdrawals, report them to your bank or credit card company immediately.
4. Approach Unsolicited Emails With Caution
Phishing scams are one way that identity thieves use to gain access to your personal information. These emails often appear to be from a company, financial institution or government organization requesting your personal information. They often claim to have a product, refund or other monetary reward for you, but before they can release it, they need to verify your identity. The sender might even claim to be a generous Nigerian prince who wants to give you some of his fortune. These are scams designed to get your personal information or to install malicious software on your computer. Do not respond to these emails or click on any links they contain.
Anti-spyware and anti-virus software and help keep you safe from these kinds of emails, but you still need to stay vigilant and avoid responding or clicking any links within the email. If the email appears to be from a company you bank or have an account with and requests that you update your information, contact them over the phone. But use the number on the back of your statements or on the company’s official website, not the number listed in the email.
5. Keep Your Mobile Devices Safe
We do everything on our smartphones and tablets now. We surf the internet, buy things, apply for jobs and check our bank accounts from our mobile devices. So much of our personal information passes through our mobile devices that it would be foolish to leave it unprotected. Yet, most of us do.
Make sure that your mobile device is equipped with at least some type of anti-virus software and preferably with an anti-spyware or anti-malware program as well. But more important that those, be careful what apps you’re downloading and what information it requests access to when you install it. If you’re downloading an app, make sure the app comes from a reputable company and check the reviews and ratings. If the app you want to install is malicious, other users will have almost certainly have let it be known in the reviews.
You should also secure your mobile device with a strong password and enable the auto-lock feature so that strangers or thieves can’t easily access the information it holds.
ID theft is a real problem and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon, but you can help protect yourself with just a few simple steps. It won’t make it impossible for someone to steal your identity, but it will make it more difficult.