Unfortunately, we live in a time when identity theft and fraud are running rampant. Almost every month we hear of major security breaches, with companies like Yahoo, Uber, Equifax, and Dropbox all compromised. When these types of breaches occur, millions of usernames and passwords are hacked, often resulting in identity theft and fraud.
So what can you do to protect yourself in 2018? What steps can you take to ensure that you don’t get hacked?
We’re going to break down the how, what, and why of protecting yourself, touching on everything from your digital accounts to your bank account.
9 Steps To Protect Yourself From Identity Theft
Many times, identity theft starts with a digital breach. From there it often moves to bank accounts and credit cards, which can be an absolute nightmare. In order to protect yourself against these things, follow these ten steps.
#1 – Shred your documents
Don’t toss bank statements and credit card receipts in the trash. Destroy them using a cross-cut shredder or shredding service.
#2 – Strengthen your passwords
Use random combinations of letters, numbers, and special characters. Create different passwords for each account and alter them frequently. Alternatively, you can use a password manager like OnePass or Dashlane to create and manage all your passwords for you.
#3 – Check your credit reports
You’re entitled to one free credit report every year from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus. Request one report every four months and review it for suspicious or incorrect information. LINK TO CREDIT REPORT SERVICE
#4 – Guard your Social Security Number
Avoid sharing it when it’s not absolutely necessary, and don’t keep it, or your Social Security card, in your wallet. After all, this is typically a key identifier for many accounts.
#5 – Be smart about social media
It is smartest to leave personal details, such as your birthday or address, off your profiles. This information can be used in an effort to get you to click on malicious links. Utilize your privacy settings and be cautious about whom you accept as a connection.
#6 – Secure your phone
Lock your device with a password, turn off Bluetooth when you’re not using it, and be cautious when downloading apps — only download from sources you know and trust. Additionally, consider using end-to-end encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp.
#7 – Know the signs of phishing
Phishing is when a scammer creates a legitimate looking email or contact that is intended to steal personal for information. For example, you they may create a password reset email that looks like it’s from Google in an effort to get you to type in your password. Watch out for emails, links, or unsolicited phone calls asking for your personal information.
#8 – Monitor your financial statements
Report any suspicious activity in your bank accounts and credit card accounts as soon as you notice it. Many banks offer fraud protection apps that are worth investigating for another level of security. If your bank or credit-card company offers free online or mobile apps that will warn you of suspicious account activity as soon as it’s detected, sign up for them.
#9 – Keep your mail safe
Stealing your mail is one of the easiest ways for a thief to steal your identity. Consider using a locked mailbox or P.O.Box, and have the post office hold your mail if you go out of town. Additionally, shred any mail that could contain personal information such as credit card or bank statements.
These guidelines can help you keep sensitive information safe. Remember to be proactive to protect your personal information. These tips will be useless after your identity is stolen.
Fraud Alerts and Security Freezes
You can stop ID thieves before they cause damage by placing a security freeze on your credit reports at all three major credit bureaus: Equifax (www.equifax.com); Experian (www.experian.com); and TransUnion (www.transunion.com). Freezes will prevent identity thieves from looking at your credit report. To sign up for one, go to each bureau’s home page and locate the security-freeze link.
If you haven’t placed a security freeze on your accounts, and you spot a sign of identity theft, put an initial fraud alert on your credit report immediately. It is fast, free, stays in place for 90 days, and gives you extra legal protection. After that, request a security freeze.
Filing a fraud alert is appropriate anytime your identity information has been compromised, like when you lose your wallet, cell phone, or computer, or if your home or car is broken into. But you should also do it after more-subtle warning signs, such as finding unauthorized charges on your credit-card statement (even if quickly resolved) or failing to receive expected bills or mail.
Fraud alerts are free; security freezes typically cost $5 to $10 per person per credit bureau each time you place or temporarily lift one. Prices range from free to $20 depending on state law. But if you’re a victim of identity fraud, freezes are usually free. You can initiate a freeze online directly with each credit bureau; for fraud alerts, you only need to inform one bureau, which will pass the request on to the other two.
How Do I Protect My Identity For Free?
There are various services you can pay for that will actively protect your identity and let you know if something goes amiss. Lifelock is an example of a company like this.
And while using a theft protection agency can give you peace of mind, there are multiple things you can do yourself, at no cost, to help protect your identity:
Never give your Social Security number or other information to strangers who call, text, or send e-mail messages to you. Phony “phishing” e-mails can look like they came from your bank or your credit card company. Also, don’t write your Social Security number on checks (except those you send to the IRS), non-credit applications, or other forms. Treat your SSN as a sacred, secret piece of information.
Never keep sensitive information in easy-to-access places. For example, never put your computer passwords on an unprotected file on your computer. Also, don’t write them down and then put them in open places. For example, never put passwords on your computer monitor or under your keyboard.
Also, when choosing passwords, don’t use simple passwords like “password” or your first or last name.
Keep financial account statements, medical records, and tax filings in a secure place at home, especially if you let workers or others inside; shred documents when you no longer need them. Generally speaking, any sensitive records that you need to keep should be locked away.
Don’t post your birthday, mother’s maiden name, first pet’s name, or other personal information on websites like Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter. They’re often used to verify your identity and could grant an identity thief electronic access to your accounts.
If your bank or credit-card issuer offers free online or mobile alerts that will warn you of suspicious account activity as soon as it’s detected, sign up for them.
Finally, sign up for Credit Sesame’s credit monitoring service before you become a victim. Credit Sesame membership is 100% free, and no credit card is required to sign up. All Credit Sesame members get $50,000 in free identity theft insurance and live support through the process of identity restoration.
How Do You Prevent Credit Card Skimming?
A credit card skimmer is a portable capture device attached in front of or on top of a legitimate scanner. The skimmer passively records the card data as you insert your credit card into the real scanner.
Credit card thieves will often temporarily affix the card skimmer device to gas pumps, ATMs, or other convenient self-service point-of-sale terminals. Criminals like gas pumps and ATMs because it is easy to retrieve their skimmers and these places generally receive a lot of traffic.
Inspect the card reader and the area near the PIN pad as many banks and merchants realize that skimming is on the rise and will often post a picture of what the real device is supposed to look like. Of course, a card skimmer could put a fake picture over the real picture so this isn’t a fail-safe way to spot a skimmer.
Most skimming devices are temporarily affixed to the gas pump or ATM so they can be easily retrieved once they’ve collected cardholder data. If you think the scanning device doesn’t look like it matches the machine’s color and style, it could be a skimmer.
Unless skimmers are running a large operation, they are probably only skimming one gas pump at a time. Take a quick look at the pump next to yours to see if the card reader and setup look different. Trust your gut – if you are in doubt, use a different gas pump or ATM in another location.
Try to avoid using your PIN at the gas pump. Choose the credit option that allows you to avoid entering your PIN. Even if there is not a card skimmer camera in sight, someone could be watching you enter your PIN and subsequently mug you and take your card to the nearest ATM to withdraw some cash.
How Do I Protect My Financial Accounts?
Keeping tabs on every aspect of your financial life is critical to protecting your accounts and everything in them. Banks and other financial institutions also make mistakes all the time! Whether it’s a glitch in the system or simple human error — it can cause you big financial trouble without you realizing it. So here are some ways to protect your money — from system glitches and people both inside and outside the bank:
Check your accounts DAILY
It may seem kind of extreme, but it’s not — especially when it comes to fraud associated with a debit card and/or checking account. Monitoring your accounts daily will not only allow you to always have a good idea of what’s going on with your money, but it will also help you spot any potential fraudulent activity immediately.
Know your protections
Debit and credit cards come with very different protections under the law for you as a consumer. Here’s what you should know:
The definition of credit card fraud: If your credit card number is stolen, not the physical card, “you are not responsible for unauthorized charges under federal law,” according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
If the actual card is stolen, you are liable for no more than $50 in authorized charges — as long as you report it to your card issuer. Some issuers won’t even charge you the $50.
The definition of debit card fraud: If you report the card as lost or stolen within two business days, you won’t be responsible for more than $50 of unauthorized transactions. According to the CFPB, “if an unauthorized transaction appears on your statement (but your card or PIN has not been lost or stolen), under federal law you will not be liable for the debit if you report it within 60 days after your account statement is sent to you.”
If someone uses your physical ATM or debit card without your permission (meaning it was stolen) and you report the fraudulent charges within 60 days after your statement is mailed to you, you could lose as much as, but no more than, $500.
If someone uses your ATM or debit card without your permission and you don’t report it within 60 days after your statement is mailed to you, the potential damage is unlimited. You could lose all the money in that account, the unused portion of your maximum line of credit established for overdrafts, and even more.
Choose a financial institution with good customer service
Whether it’s a local bank, credit union, or multinational financial institution, find good customer service. The best places will always work with you to help get fraudulent charges or purchases off your account.
Never share your banking information with anyone
Don’t share any of your sensitive information via text, email, phone, social media, or any other app. If you ever receive a request to share your information, do not respond or provide any piece of information about yourself.
Use strong passwords & two-factor authentication
Two-factor authentication (sometimes called two-step authentication) requires you to take an extra step to authenticate who you are when you sign in or when you are doing a transaction.
Whatever the extra step is, opt in for it! It’s another layer of security for you and your money.
Don’t access your financial accounts from just anywhere
You should never log into your account — or any other account that contains your financial or card information — from an unsecured device or unprotected Wi-Fi network.
What Do You Do When Someone Steals Your Identity?
If you suspect identity theft, act immediately to minimize negative consequences:
Put a fraud alert and/or security freeze on your credit reports
A fraud alert puts a red flag on your credit report and notifies lenders and creditors that they should take extra steps to verify your identity before extending credit. Initial fraud alerts are free and remain in place for 90 days. In some cases, extended fraud alerts incur a small fee, but under most circumstances fraud alert services are free to victims of identity theft.
Another option is to place a security freeze on your credit reports. A freeze prevents creditors (except those with whom you already do business) from accessing your credit report(s) at all. Most new applications will automatically be declined because without access to your file, the creditor will have no way to evaluate your credit. Not every state allows credit freezes to be placed by consumers who are not victims of identity theft, but every state allows identity theft victims to freeze their files. Some states charge a fee to freeze the file, and another fee to thaw it.
Contact any institution directly affected
If you know your credit card was stolen, immediately report the theft to the credit card issuer. If your checkbook or debit card was stolen, contact your financial institution. Keep a list of what’s in your wallet, along with the contact information for each item.
Contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
File an Identity Theft Affidavit and a police report and create an Identity Theft Report. You can file your report online, by phone (toll-free): 1-877-ID THEFT (877-438-4338); TDD (toll-free): 1-866-653-4261, or by mail — 600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington DC 20580.
The FTC will provide you with information about what to do next, depending on the type of fraud.
File a police report
To complete the Identity Theft Report, you’ll need to contact your local police and report the theft. Be sure to get a copy of the police report and/or the report number. Both your police report and the FTC Identity Theft Affidavit combine to create your Identity Theft Report. Your Report is essential when working with the credit reporting agencies or any other entities the identity thief may have contacted to open accounts in your name.
Report the theft to the Social Security Administration
If your social security number has been stolen, contact the Social Security Administration (800-269-0271) and the Internal Revenue Service (800-829-0433). It’s important to talk to both agencies if you think your Social Security number has been compromised.
Contact the Post Office
If you have reason to believe the identity thief may have submitted a fraudulent change-of-address to the post office or has used the U.S. mail to commit the fraud against you, contact the Postal Inspection Service, which is the law enforcement and security branch of the post office, and fill out the necessary paperwork.
These are only the first few steps. Total recovery from identity theft is a long, drawn-out process.
How Do You Recover From Identity Theft?
Once you have discovered the fraud and taken the initial steps to freeze or protect your accounts, take a deep breath and begin to repair the damage. The first step is to close any new accounts opened fraudulently in your name. Then, work with your bank and creditors to remove fraudulent charges from your accounts. Next, contact the credit reporting agencies and have the errors corrected. Finally, think about adding an extended fraud alert or credit freeze on your accounts.
Depending on your situation, you might need to take additional steps. If your social security number was compromised, contact the Social Security Administration and report it. You also need to replace all of your government issued IDs.
One unpleasant task is keeping debt collectors from trying to collect on fraudulent debts.
Additionally, you may have to work with law enforcement and creditors for months to clear your name of any criminal charges due to the identity theft. For certain types of accounts, you might have to contact additional offices. These include utility companies, phone service providers, government benefit offices, student loans, accounts at other banks, rental landlords, your personal finance officer, and the courts if you have a bankruptcy filed in your name.
Keep Yourself Safe
In our technologically bound and increasingly digital world, identity theft has become a major racket. Be sure to stay safe by staying smart. Do everything you can at home to increase your security, but also be wary of public Wi-Fi spots, be on the lookout for skimmers, and keep an eye on all of your financial and credit records. If you become a victim of identity theft, be immediately proactive in reporting the fraud and work with law enforcement and the agencies to fix your credit.