Identity theft is something people tend to neglect, no matter how often they hear about it. It always seems as something terrible that only happens to others but never to us. The unpleasant truth is that identity theft can happen to anyone. And even though there is no 100% guaranteed method to protect ourselves against it, there are a number of simple things we can do to make us less likely to become a victim of identity theft.
But first, let’s see why we should do it.
What qualifies as identity theft and why you should be careful
We often imagine identity theft as someone walking around, pretending to be us. In reality, unauthorized use of any piece of personal information is considered identity theft. This could include address, email address, previous addresses, mother’s maiden name, the place where you were born, pin number, bank account details, social security number, passwords, and more.
Having your SSN stolen sounds pretty scary – with it, a criminal could do almost everything that the real SSN holder can. Your property would be at risk. Not only that, but a criminal could commit a crime using your SSN and name. Then the police would come looking for you, thinking you’re the one who did it.
But how could a criminal use your mother’s maiden name to do you harm? Indirectly. Many companies keep your personal information these days and questions like “what is your mother’s maiden name” are common before they give you access to your data. Someone could take advantage of this and break into your account. Once they do, they would likely find more sensitive information, which can be directly used for their benefit.
Online Identity Theft Prevention
Identity theft is not something new but modern technologies and lifestyle present new risks. Social media, for example, makes it very easy for thieves to find victims and acquire personal information. You can’t be completely safe. There is no way to hide your email from everyone or even control who sees it. But you can take certain precautions.
- Use strong passwords –many sites today ask users to use a password with at least 12 characters, including letters, capital letters, numbers, and symbols. This a safety measure against brute force hacking into your account. Ideally, a password like that is random-generated. However, recent studies suggest that this practice had made overall web security weaker. That’s because people simply cannot remember those passwords and as a result, they write them down somewhere – on a separate text file or on a note on the desk. This makes it easy for others to find and use those passwords. Perhaps the best advice is to use a password you can remember but is hard for others to guess.
- Use 2-factor verification for all of your online accounts–upon login, you will be asked to enter not just your username and password, but also something else – like a pin code sent to your phone as an SMS. This drastically improves security and is common practice for banks and financial institutions, but you should use 2-factor verification wherever possible.
- Be mindful of your privacy settings on social media–you are able to choose who sees what of the things what you share. An open profile makes it extremely easy for identity thieves to learn an awful lot about you. Take the time and adjust your security settings now.
- Don’t be quick to open or download any email attachments – they are often infected with malware which gives hackers access to your computer and any private information you store on it.
- Be hesitant to share sensitive information on sites which do not have SSL certificate – check if the web address starts with https. If it does, it means that the site will encrypt the information you are about to submit, making it unreadable to hackers.
- Remember that public Wi-Fi connections might be corrupted – do not use them to log in your PayPal account or online banking. Actually, do not use them to access any accounts. Hackers could easily steal your information over non-secure Wi-Fi networks.
Offline Identity Theft Prevention
Compared to the online world, we feel more secure in the real world. It is hard to imagine how someone could trick us into giving them sensitive information. But practice shows this happens a lot and we shouldn’t underestimate the risks.
- Be careful with documents that contain private information. Documents such as bank statements and solicitations should be shred or at least torn up. Some people could search through your garbage to find your private information. Don’t throw the ATM receipt in the nearest bin. Carry it in your pocket until you can get rid of it safely.
- Do not give away any private information over the phone. Ever. No company would ask you to do that. If someone is trying to collect your information, it is most probably a scam. If it seems urgent, hang up, call the company back, and ask them to confirm that they indeed need this information from you.
- Monitor your credit score. You can request a free credit report from the three national credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian, and Trans Union – once a year. This means that every 4 months you can check for anything suspicious going on with your credit. For example, if someone has tried to apply for a loan using your social security number.
Identity theft is among the fastest growing crimes in America. It may cause you serious trouble and it is typically hard to undo the damage. Protection of your personal information should be a priority. And if you believe you have been a victim of identity theft, contact the authorities immediately. Stay safe!