Guide: Protecting Your Digital Identity

By on Jul 15, 2021

People in their 20s and 30s are losing it online. And by it, I mean money—thanks to digital identity theft. 

In its simplest form, your digital identity is made up of a whole host of things that can be traced back to you and who you are. That can range anywhere from photos you post online to online shopping accounts, email accounts to telephone numbers, and bank accounts to your tax ID.  

In this way, your digital identity is like dozens upon dozens of puzzle pieces made up of different accounts, ID numbers, and so forth. When put together, they create a picture of you. And that’s why those little puzzle pieces of your identity are such attractive targets for hackers. If they get the right combination of them, you can end up a victim of theft or fraud.  

Millennials are major targets for fraud 

Here’s what’s happening: people in their 20s and 30s were twice as likely than people 40 and over to report losing money while shopping online. That’s according to recent figures from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which also found that people in their 20s to 30s are far more likely to report losing money to fraud. What’s more, they’re also 77% more likely than older people to lose it by way of an email scam. 

And it’s no surprise younger adults get targeted this way. They’re far more likely than any other age group to use mobile apps for peer-to-peer payments, transfer money between accounts, deposit checks, and pay bills. In short, there’s a lot of money flowing through the palms of their hands thanks to their phones, as well as their computers. 

Protecting yourself from hackers and fraud means protecting your digital identity. And that can feel like a pretty huge task given all the information your digital identity includes. It can be done, though, especially if you think about your identity like a puzzle. A piece here, another piece there, can complete the picture (or complete it just enough) to give a hacker what they need to separate you from your money. Thus, the way to stay safe is to keep those puzzle pieces out of other people’s hands.  

Six ways you can protect your digital identity from hackers and fraud 

It’s actually not that tough. With a few new habits and a couple of apps to help you out, you can protect yourself from the headaches and flat-out pain of fraud. Here’s a list of straightforward things that you can get started on right away: 

1. Start with the basics—security software  

Protect yourself by protecting your stuff. Installing and using security software on your computers and phones can prevent all kinds of attacks and make you safer while you surf, bank, and shop online. I should emphasize it again—protect your phone. Only about half of people protect their phones even though they use it to hail rides, order food, send money to friends, and more. Going unprotected on your phone means you’re sending all that money on the internet in a way that’s far, far less safe than if you use online protection. 

2. Create strong passwords  

You hear this one all the time and for good reason—strong, unique passwords offer one of your best defenses against hackers. Never re-use them (or slight alterations of them) across the different platforms and services you use. Don’t forget to update them on the regular (that means at least every 60 days)! While that sounds like a lot of work, a password manager can keep on top of it all for you. And if your platform or service offers the use of two-factor authentication, definitely make use of that. It’s a further layer of security that makes hacking tougher for crooks. 

3. Keep up to date with your updates  

Updates have a way of popping up on our phones and computers nearly every day, resist the urge to put them off until later. Aside from making improvements, updates often include important security fixes. So, when you get an alert for your operating system or app on your devices, go ahead and update. Think of it as adding another line of defense from hackers who are looking to exploit old flaws in your apps.   

4. Think twice when you share  

Social media is one place hackers go to harvest personal information because people sometimes have a way of sharing more than they should. With info like your birthday, the name of your first school, your mother’s maiden name, or even the make of your first car, they can answer common security questions that could hack into your accounts. Crank up the privacy settings on your accounts so only friends and family can see your posts—and realize the best defense here is not to post any possibly sensitive info in the first place. Also, steer clear of those “quizzes” that sometimes pop up in your social feeds. Those are other ways that hackers try to gain bits of info that can put your identity at risk. 

5. Shred it  

Even though so many of us have gone paperless with our bills, identity theft by digging through the trash, or “dumpster diving,” is still a thing. Things like medical bills, tax documents, and checks still might make their way to your mailbox. You’ll want to dispose of them properly when you’re through with them. First, invest in paper shredder. Once you’ve online deposited that check or paid that odd bill, shred it so that any personal or account info on there can’t be read (and can be recycled securely). Second, if you’re heading out of town for a bit, have a friend collect your mail or have the post office put a temporary hold on your mail. That’ll prevent thieves from lifting personal info right from your mailbox while you’re away. 

6. Check your credit  

Even if you don’t think there’s a problem, go ahead and check your credit. The thing is, someone could be charging things against your name without you even knowing it. Depending on where you live, different credit reporting agencies keep tabs on people’s credit. In the U.S., the big ones are Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Also in the U.S., the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires these agencies to provide you with a free credit check at least once every 12 months. Canada, the UK, and other nations likewise offer ways to get a free credit report. Run down your options—you may be surprised by what you find. 

How do I know if my identity has been stolen?  

As I just mentioned, the quickest way to get sense of what’s happening with your identity is to check your credit. Identity theft goes beyond money. Crooks will steal identities to rent apartments, access medical services, and even get jobs. Things like that can show up on a credit report, such as when an unknown address shows up in a list of your current and former residences or when a company you’ve never worked for shows up as an employer. If you spot anything strange, track it down right away. Many businesses have fraud departments with procedures in place that can help you clear your name if you find a charge or service wrongfully billed under your name. 

Other signs are far more obvious. You may find collection agencies calling or even see tax notices appearing in your mailbox (yikes). Clearly, cases like those are telltale signs that something is really wrong. In that case, report it right away: 

  • If you live in the U.S. and think that someone is using your personal information, visit IdentityTheft.gov. 
  • In Canada, visit antifraudcentre-centreantifraude.ca for help.  
  • And in the UK, check out CIFAS, the UK’s fraud prevention service, at cifas.org.uk. 

Likewise, many nations offer similar government services. A quick search will point you in the right direction. 

Another step you can take is to ask each credit bureau to freeze your credit, which prevents crooks from using your personal information to open new lines of credit or accounts in your name. Fraud alerts offer another line of protection for you as well, and you can learn more about fraud alerts here. 

Keeping your digital identity in your hands 

With so many bits and pieces of information making up your digital identity, a broader way of keeping it safe involves asking yourself a question: what could happen if someone got their hands on this info? Further realizing that even little snippets of unsecured info can lead to fraud or theft in your name helps—even that un-shredded bill or innocuous refund check for a couple of bucks could give a crook the puzzle piece they need. You can keep your digital identity safe by keeping those pieces of info out of other people’s hands.    

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About the Author

Lily Saleh

Lily Saleh is the Senior Program Manager at McAfee. She has over 10 years experience focusing heavily in cybersecurity. She is passionate about taking the complex cybersecurity world and simplifying it so consumers get the information they need to protect themselves for any threats. Outside of work, Lily enjoys swimming (she used to coach for ...

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