The holiday shopping season is upon us which is a great time of the year to talk about protecting yourself from identity theft. I remember the first time I went to get a credit card. I was around 21 years old in 2002 and needed it for some college expenses. Bad idea right? Well, good thing this isn’t an article about smart financial choices – this is about protecting your identity. So, when I opened the credit card account and talked with the customer service rep that was helping me get set up, one of the last questions they asked me was “Sir, would you like to put the balance you have on your Bank of America card on here?” Of course, my answer was, “Um…What Bank of America Card?”
So, right then and there began a journey where I contacted the other credit card company and find out the exact items that were purchased. This led me to deduce who exactly now owned the shiny new toys. Well, I had come to find out that a family member had used my information to take out $6500 in debt on credit cards. Yikes!!! Let me just say that confronting them was one of the more awkward conversations I have ever had in my life.
Yes. it was two credit cards that were taken out. When you’ve maxed out someone else’s credit card, and now you need a second one, do you think maybe there’s a problem that needs to be addressed here? Just asking for a friend of a friend. What makes matters worse is there were multiple strikes on the credit report of 90 day late payments. Suffice it to say, my credit was trashed for years to come.
This was my first experience of having my credit and/or identity stolen. There were multiple other occasions where I’ve had existing credit cards that were attempted to be used for illegitimate purposes, but for the most part I learned my lesson early and in a surprising way.
But enough about me, I want to help you protect yourself from cybercriminals and identity thieves. There are some commonly known tips here, but I’ve also added some experiences here that I believe have helped me. I talk about a specific tip that has probably been the best defense against thieves, but surprisingly I’ve never seen anyone else suggest this important action.
This is probably one of the easiest and formidable ways to protect yourself from cybercriminals and that’s why I have it as #1. A credit freeze will restrict access to your information and will not allow new credit accounts to be opened. In the past, this process used to be arduous and even costly, but in 2018 a law was passed to provide credit freezes for free. We can thank the big Equifax data breach in 2017 (oddly enough) for this perk.
To freeze your credit, what you will need to do is go to each of the three major credit bureau’s – Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion and freeze your credit from there. I recommend signing up for an account if that’s an option so you can manage freezes and unfreezes more easily in the future. I keep my credit accounts frozen unless I’m getting a loan. In that case, I log in, click unfreeze, set a time frame, and voila. I believe I did it over my mobile phone at the car dealership when buying a car. As I said, it’s that easy, but just a year or two ago was not. Yay for us.
There are some products out there being sold that offer protection above and beyond just the credit freeze. It acts more or less like insurance and an advocate for you if your identity were to be stolen. Each carrier has a unique list of benefits and services that they provide. Some of the perks are ongoing monitoring, reimbursement from damage or costs incurred due to theft, live FICO scores, and more. Each of the three credit bureau’s offers an added identity theft service, but there are other companies such as Lifelock and InfoArmor.
Once again, a law was passed that requires Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion to offer you one free credit report each year. This is great for checking up on your history and making sure there is nothing suspicious or there is not wrong information about any of your credit accounts.
When you type in “free credit report” in a search engine, more than likely you will be inundated with ads that promise you a free credit report. Maybe some of them do? But my recommendation is to bypass all the advertisements that lead to websites trying to sell you all the extras and go directly to this website https://www.annualcreditreport.com/. In case you are wondering, you do not need to unfreeze your credit to pull your credit report from that site.
Since there are three credit agencies that you can pull a credit report from each year my other recommendation is to look at your credit report every 4 months. You can do this in any order but can pull up Experian in January, TransUnion in May, and Equifax in September and then repeat the process every year.
As digital as everything is nowadays and as online hacks increasingly grow, you still need to take care of the things in the mail and in the trash. Thieves can use CC solicitations to steal your credit. They will need additional information such as your Social Security Number, but you might as well give them one more hurdle to climb. My advice is to opt-out of credit card solicitations. You can stop credit bureaus from selling your information by going to www.optoutprescreen.com. Opting out should stop most offers, and it’s free.
Another tip for using the mail is to not send checks through an unsecured mailbox. Either you can get a P.O. Box or you can do what I do and pay bills that require a check through your online bank with their digital bill pay tool. If bad actors get a hold of your check, they could manipulate the information, and nobody wants a $100 check turns into a $1000 check.
Lastly, make sure any sensitive information is destroyed before putting in the trash. There are still dumpster divers that like to dig in the trash to get your information. Use a shredder or blot out personally sensitive information that could compromise you.
To open any credit account, you will need to enter your Social Security Number. So, it’s important to keep this in a safe place. One of the most common ways that Social Security Numbers get stolen is when your wallet or purse gets stolen. I know some of us overprepared types like to make sure that we have all information available at our fingertips at all times. But let’s be real here. You have never needed your social security card at random times. It’s just like your birth certificate. No one carries around their birth certificate in their wallet unless they are renewing your driver’s license. So just stash it along with your birth certificate and keep it safe. Don’t leave your social security number or card laying around in an easy to see spot for plumbers, contractors, or housekeepers to see.
The internet has definitely improved on the requirements for using strong passwords. Most websites don’t let you use ‘password1234’ as your password. But there are still some sites out there that aren’t as precautious. Another safeguard is making sure that you do not reuse passwords. If a hacker knows the password to one account and they have your credit history, then they can gain access to all of your credit accounts that you have open. Personally, I use a unique, strong password for all my most high-risk accounts. But for the ones that have very basic information, I’ll use variations of a semi-complex password.
I use a password management tool to store all my passwords under a master password. There are some out there that actually write your passwords down; this is fine, but make sure you lock it up.
The last point of advice here is if you prefer extra caution then utilize the feature called “multi-factor authentication” Okay, yeah it’s a big phrase. it just means that we want to verify that it’s you with a 2nd verification method outside of a normal password. So, my bank for instance will have me enter a password to get into my online account, but they will also send me a text message or email that I have to click on to double verify it’s me.
When buying things online always use a credit card. Credit cards offer a lot more protection for the consumer than Debit cards do. There is still some protection with a debit card, but It’s a more difficult process and has stricter limitations on what you recover and when you can recover it. If you use a credit card to purchase online and a hacker steals your information, it’s usually just a quick call to your credit card company and they handle it from there and refund you any charges that have been made without you making much of a fuss.
There are two ways that you use Wi-Fi – one is at home and the other is on the go in public. You need to protect both. Some know that public Wi-Fi can be insecure, but if you don’t properly protect your wifi at home, then a hacker can access your network and steal your information that is being transmitted over your network. Use a strong password for connecting to your wi-fi network. Another tip is to make sure your network name does not have an obvious connection to you. Don’t name your network after your address or family name.
When on the go and on a public Wi-Fi network, do not access crucial information such as financial or medical records. I understand that there are times that you must, but if you must, then please use something called a Virtual Private Network (VPN). If you are on Wi-Fi on your phone in public, you can download a few apps that can install a VPN for you. A VPN will give you privacy and anonymity when you are browsing online. It is crucial you activate a VPN on public Wi-Fi.
I don’t know about you, and I’d rather not admit this in public either, but I have my life is on my phone. If I were to ever get my phone stolen and if someone were to access it, then they would be able to take over my life. I have everything on there. The same goes for my computer. I protect each device with a password. Getting your social security or credit stolen would be the least of your worries
Sometimes we can give out personal information that can be used to steal our identity in our social networks. Just be careful what you share online. Keep your posts between your friends
Keep your electronic devices protected with updated malware and virus protection. Pay for virus protection. Don’t use the free stuff. Your information is too important. I make sure that the settings in my virus software are set to update automatically and immediately. I also set it to run a scan every night when sleeping.
This is one I personally use, and I am declaring that it is probably my best defense against stolen data. My children are not allowed to use my computer that I use for buying online and managing financial information. They have a laptop that they have used for school that they can work on. I’ve had to go on their computer many times and wipe it or clean it from hundreds of malicious files. You can put all the protection you want on that computer, but kids will somehow find a way to download malicious software or content.
I am careful on my computer and know what software I need to download. Kids click on EVERYTHING and you can’t be around always to stop it. Your anti-virus software is not perfect either. Go ahead and decide which device you are sharing sensitive information on, and set up a rule immediately preventing your kids from using that device.
Bad emails are commonly referred to spoofing emails or phishing emails. I know it’s weird. When I get emails that have links in them and claim to be from an account I have, I almost never click on the links. I go directly to the company’s website and address any problems directly there on their website. I consider myself tech-savvy and can be 100% certain by looking at the code that an email is bad or good.
Don’t give out personal information over the phone without verifying who it is. My habit is to ask them if I can call them back. I then look up the number to the place online and call that number directly. If it’s about paying a bill, then go to their website directly and pay online. Don’t give out your credit card over the phone to someone you can’t see. I admit there are some really crafty phone scams out there that I almost fell for myself.
Look at your credit card and bank statements to make sure that your transactions are legitimate. I use a budgeting tool called mint that displays all of my transactions from all my accounts in a single list. I don’t need to open up each account and see them in different screens so this makes it convenient for me. I go through this list every month.
Hackers can break into a website security and steal credit card and personal information through them. Make sure the website is displaying a ‘secure’ icon in the URL. A secure icon is usually I little padlock icon you will see in the browser in the bar displaying the website URL. It means that the website is using a form of encryption that encrypts information that is transferred online.
There are obvious signs that your identity has been stolen such as unauthorized charges on a financial account, or if a collector is calling you, or you found an account open on your credit report that you did not open, or you’ve been notified of a security breach.
Although it was egregious, I didn’t report the first time my identity was stolen because it was family (that ironically no longer is family), but that’s history now. There were other times my Credit Card info was stolen and had to be replaced, but there was a second time that my identity was stolen. I had a side business that had the business identity stolen. They were using my info and business info and charged a few thousand dollars on a business account with a software loan company.
With that being stolen the software loan company made me jump through a few hoops. I had to file a police report, send them the police report. Then file with the FTC and send them the report as well. It wasn’t too bad of a process, but I could see how a situation like that could have turned out to be a nightmare. I was fortunate to have an officer that seemed to trust what I was telling him, so I was able to get the police report pretty easily. The moral of that story is don’t forget about business identity theft either.
So, I’ve already stated the two main points for what you should do when your identity is stolen – File a police report and a claim with the FTC. You could also put out a fraud alert for your financial accounts and also file one with the three credit bureaus.
The last thing I’ll say here is that all of the tips above should apply to your children. Child identity theft is on the rise. You want to set the path straight and make sure they have a fair shot when they get out there. You can protect your child’s information as well. In the meantime, Alliance offers financial protection for your home and business. Speak to us about retirement planning or an annuity.
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