We live in a digital age where all sorts of personal information is stored on our cell phones, computers, and even in the chips of our credit cards. This has opened us up to the possibility of a security breach… and, in turn, identity theft.
Over the years, the frequency of identity theft and fraud complaints has continued to increase, and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. It’s important to be informed as to what identity theft actually is and how you can protect yourself. That way, you can prevent this growing crime from happening to you.
Before we discuss ways to protect yourself from identity theft, let’s take a look at how it can happen in the first place.
How Your Identity Can Be Stolen
There are a number of ways your identity can be stolen. With the prevalence of the internet and technology, identity thieves are always coming up with new ways to gain your information.
Think of all the pieces of technology you own that are connected to the internet: your smartphone, your tablet, your computer, and your TV, just to name a few. Hackers can find ways to get into those devices and install malicious software that steals your information. For example, keystroke-logging software records what you type on your computer and can pick up any personal information you enter. This may mean giving a thief access to your credit card or Social Security numbers.
Hackers don’t only target individuals; they also target large organizations. The retail giant, Target, was hacked in 2013, exposing many of their customers’ names and credit card numbers.
Phishing is the act of sending fraudulent emails to people. The sender claims to be from a reputable company, often playing on fears in order to get the receiver’s personal information.
Two common phishing emails include a “bank” asking you to verify your account and an “email provider” claiming you need to change your password (often claiming that they believe your account has been compromised, and that this password update is a security measure). Email providers have picked up on this scam, thankfully. Gmail will display an alert above an email it believes may be phishing. They may not pick up on each instance, though, so it’s smart to check the sender’s actual email address, avoid clicking links in emails of which you are unsure, and never sending your personal information in a response.
Identity thieves target people by phone and text message, as well. The terms for those acts are “vishing” and “smishing” respectively.
Dumpster diving is a technique identity thieves use to retrieve personal information from people’s trash. They search through dumpsters and trash bins looking for mail and other documents that may have personal information they can use. Some common mail pieces that identity thieves may look for include credit card offers, bank statements, and tax documents.
How to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft
Now that you know how your identity can be stolen, it’s time to discuss ways to protect yourself. Here are five effective ways to keep your personal information safe and reduce your chances of becoming a victim of identity theft:
1. Review your account statements. You should get into the habit of reviewing your account statements on a regular basis. You’ll want to look for any fraudulent or questionable charges and dispute them immediately. If you don’t receive paper statements, you can almost always review statements online. It takes only a couple of minutes to glance over your latest activity — this can potentially alert you if someone has been using any of your accounts.
2. Shred documents that have your personal information on them. To prevent identity thieves from finding your personal information via dumpster diving, you should shred documents that contain that type of information before tossing them. You could either invest in a paper shredder or shred the documents by hand. Many office supply stores also offer shredding services (though these are for a fee).
3. Use strong passwords, and change them often. Strong passwords can prevent potential hackers from getting into your accounts, stealing your information, and making unauthorized purchases. An ideal password will use a combination of upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols, and will not use any full words in the English language. No, they shouldn’t be your pet’s name and your birthdate.
You should change your passwords often, as an added layer of precaution. Also, try to use different passwords for different accounts. This will prevent all of your accounts from being compromised, should a hacker get access to one of your passwords.
4. Check your annual credit report. Your credit report is the ultimate place to look for evidence of identity theft. You can see, for example, if someone opened up a credit card or took out a personal loan in your name. You can even place a freeze on your credit through the credit bureaus to prevent new credit from being opened in your name.
Learn How: How a Credit Freeze Can Protect You
5. Sign up for suspicious activity alerts. A lot of places that hold your personal information now offer suspicious activity alerts to notify you when someone may have attempted to steal your information. A common sign of suspicious activity is too many incorrect login attempts. You can receive alerts by text and email.
What to Do If Your Identity Is Stolen
Straighten it out with the company. The first thing you should if your identity is stolen is contacted the affected institution to stop the damage. For example, if you notice a fraudulent charge on your credit card statement, contact the credit card issuer so that they can investigate the charge. They may end up changing your account number.
Report the identity theft to law enforcement. The next step is to report the identity theft to law enforcement. This includes filing a police report and contacting the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC has a website dedicated to identity theft where you can file a report and get a recovery plan.
Monitor your accounts moving forward. It’s important to continue monitoring your accounts after the identity theft incident has been resolved. This will prevent the same thing from happening again. There are even identity theft monitoring services out there, such as LifeLock, that not only detect identity theft activity but also help you restore your identity in the event of theft.
Resource: A Review of LifeLock’s Services
No one wants to imagine being the victim of identity theft. Not only is it a violating experience, but it can have financial repercussions as well. To better understand identity theft, it’s best to know how it happens.
We have discussed ways that identity thieves go about stealing people’s information, as well as ways to protect yourself from those acts. We also covered what to do in the unfortunate event that your identity is stolen. If you take one thing away from this article, it should be the importance of monitoring your accounts. The earlier you can detect an act of identity theft, the better you can control its effects.
Have you had your identity stolen in the past? What was the worst part about the experience and how did you correct the theft?