Thanks to large-scale hacks such as the Equifax and Yahoo breaches, identity thieves have no shortage of information to use in their criminal pursuits. Is your information among them?
"Identity theft can trash your credit score because there's the risk that somebody takes your name, your Social Security number, and your solid credit rating, goes out, applies for a bunch of credit, and then doesn't repay any of it," cautions Bankrate.com Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Analyst Greg McBride. "That can really just destroy what otherwise had been years of hard work on your part to build a solid credit rating."
You may not be able to stop all identity theft methods, but you can take common-sense steps to protect your information and limit the likelihood of damage. In honor of Data Privacy Day (January 28), we present 15 preventative actions that you should take.
1. Check Your Accounts Regularly – Frequently review all credit and debit card accounts for unknown purchases that could indicate fraudulent use. Generally, account information should be updated daily and be available for review online.
2. Consider a Monitoring/Prevention Service – If you're too busy to monitor your own accounts, MoneyTips can monitor your credit report for suspicious behavior and make it difficult for thieves to open false accounts in your name. "MoneyTips actually has a credit monitoring service, so that way you can see if someone has opened up a new card under your name very quickly," explains Best-selling Author and Financial Educator Tiffany "The Budgetnista" Aliche. "Because the sooner you could tell your bank, hey, something is not right, the more likely they are to believe you and do something about it."
3. Use Strong Passwords – Find passwords that have meaning to you but are difficult to hack. Consider the trick of incorporating characters at regular intervals, such as "P@A#S$S%W@O#R$D%". See your keyboard for the pattern (and don't use "password" as the text).
4. Protect Your Passwords – Don't save your passwords on your computer or let your computer remember passwords – that's the equivalent of hiding your door keys under the "Welcome" mat.
5. Avoid Password Duplication – Use unique passwords for each account. It may be easier to remember one password instead of twenty, but why give thieves access to multiple accounts?
6. Keep Devices Protected – Make sure that your computer, smartphone, and other devices that are connected to the Internet have the latest protections. Update protection software regularly and check the news for any new threats that require immediate updates. Use file encryption whenever possible to protect individual files in case your system is breached.
7. Use Secure Wi-Fi – Unsecured wireless Internet connections can thwart all of your other protections. Use them at your own risk.
8. Use Multi-Factor Authentication – Take advantage of multi-factor authentication when it's available. Typically, this involves a secondary temporary security code that is sent via e-mail or text message. The code must be entered before a transaction is completed.
9. Dispute Errors – Immediately address any mistakes or false charges on credit cards or debit cards, no matter how small. They could be the first sign of a breach.
10. Cancel Compromised Accounts – Cancel any compromised debit or credit accounts and replace them with new cards as soon as possible – but make sure banks and credit card issuers are aware of the situation to avoid missed payments and penalties during the transition. When cancelling a card, don't forget to reassign recurring charges that you've allocated to it.
11. Set Up Alerts – Many cards have fraud protections and alerts to notify you of questionable charges, odd purchasing patterns, or unusually large purchases. Take advantage of any program that is offered, and consider switching to a different card if your current one does not offer protections.
12. Shred Old Documents – Some identity theft is still old-school rummaging through your trash and discarded mail. Shred any documents, even junk mail, that contains information useful to thieves – and consider a locking mailbox to avoid mail theft.
13. Review Medical Statements – Medical claims are confusing and take a long time to process – making them ripe targets for identity thieves. A fraudulent medical claim in your name could reach collections before you even know it exists. Look for Explanations of Benefits (EOBs) for unfamiliar groups or procedures.
14. Stick with Trusted Sites – Stay with familiar websites and be suspicious of any external links. Look for "https" in your browser window, as the "s" indicates a secure site – but even this system is not foolproof.
15. Stay Familiar with Scams – Phishing e-mails and fake websites are becoming more elaborate and difficult to discern. Note any new scams that are reported, and trust your instincts if you find a new e-mail or text message that looks suspicious.
While these steps don't guarantee success against identity theft, you increase the odds by making yourself a relatively difficult target. Most identity thieves will move on to greener pastures – and, based on recent breaches, there are plenty of greener pastures for thieves to explore.
If you would like to monitor your credit to prevent identity theft and see your credit report and score, join MoneyTips.