According to the latest reports, digital thieves stole more than $16 billion from consumers in 2016 — that’s up nearly $1 billion from 2015. According to Javelin Strategy & Research, some 15.4 million consumers were victims of identity theft or fraud last year.
Those stats will take the jingle out of anyone’s holiday. So how can we fight back? By staying grounded in reality and making sure our identity and bank accounts remain off limits to cyber thieves.
In 2005 following Hurricane Katrina, my identity was stolen and sold to a third-party distributing stolen social security numbers to hurricane victims who needed phones and purchasing power quickly. I found this out several months later after credit card statements to the tune of $3,000 started arriving in my name.
The emotional toll that followed was brutal. While I went through all the propersteps of filing a police report, canceling my credit cards, putting alerts on and freezing my credit, and spending countless hours explaining the situation to unsympathetic bill collectors, the outstanding bogus bills
continued to surface for years. The authorities believe the leaked social security number was part of a more significant medical data breach similar to the recent Equifax breach.
Identity theft is brutal.
Even though the breach wasn’t my fault, it still took me several years before I dared to make an online purchase. Over a decade later, I still get uneasy when I enter my credit card information. I eventually decided that rather than abandon online purchasing (which is becoming nearly impossible), I would do everything I could to stay a step ahead of the crooks.
Pro-Active Ways to Dodge Identity Theft
No one is 100 percent fraud-proof in our digital world where big corporations store so much of our personal information.When Equifax got hacked, everyone sobered up. With 145 million people affected by the Equifax incident, most everyone will have to monitor their credit activity for years to come closely.
Still, there are some things you can do to reduce the chances that you’ll be a target of identity theft or online fraud. Note: Anyone with a social security number can be a victim of identity theft — including your kids. These tips apply to your child’s identity as well.
- Just say ‘No!’ Be discerning when giving personal information online be it on social platforms, email signups, polls, surveys, and on apps. Just because a website is asking for your information doesn’t mean it’s necessary to provide it to them. Ask who wants the information and why. Don’t be click bait. And all those “fun” social media apps and games that show up in your feed and woo you into clicking to see your celebrity lookalike? Skip them! Many are designed to gather information needed to put your identity puzzle together for thieves. They lack safeguards and are never worth the click. Don’t post your date of birth, mother’s maiden name, pet’s name, or other personal information on social sites or even in your posts or content — many people just use an initial of a child when posting online. Determined thieves can use these bits and pieces of information to verify your identity and access to your electronic accounts.
- Slow down. Having a world of information at our fingertips has spoiled us. We want the information we want when we want it. Crooks bank on the fact that we are moving fast and likely not taking the time to question a suspicious link. So slow down and think before you click and encourage your kids to do the same. The same applies to our internet searches. In a world where we Google everything, safety becomes critical. Using a tool like McAfee WebAdvisor can help keep you safe by identifying malicious websites and warning the user before they click. Also, search engines siphon personal and behavioral data. So, as an extra layer of protection, go into your browser and adjust the privacy settings to block tracking used by advertisers.
- Shred it. I used to think this was such an old-school, irrelevant practice but safety digital experts agree: If you don’t own a shredder, you might consider one to guard your privacy. Identity theft via snail mail is still an issue. What kind of information should you shred? Anything containing:
• Your Social Security Number (even just the last four digits)
• Your birth date
• Your credit card numbers
• Any account numbers from financial institutions
• Medical insurance numbers
• Unsolicited credit applications
- Back to basics checklist. No matter how much you think you know about technology and the risks, stay humble about your vulnerability to online crime. Pay attention to privacy basics which include: updating passwords, amping privacy settings on all social networks, avoiding public Wi-Fi, and using two-step authentication for logins.
- Update and protect. Update your virus protection software regularly and do not download files from strangers. Too, when you get an alert to update software — be it your phone, laptop, or tablet — pay attention. Updates put one more lock on your digital security. Criminals can exploit flaws in old software versions to hack into your device.
- Secure Your Home Network. Limit your circle of trust when it comes to access to your home network — doing so protects your whole family physically and financially. Be sure to name your home network something other than your family name and don’t be casual when it comes to giving out your password. Treat your network password the way you would a house key. Think about creating a guest network so visitors can connect without gaining access to your family’s other networked devices or shared files.
- Know the signs. If a thief is using your data, you may notice: 1) Pre-approved credit card offers arriving via mail 2) Collection agencies calling 3) Court notices regarding delinquent bills. If you suspect someone is using your personal information to open accounts, file taxes, or make purchases, visit IdentityTheft.gov.
- Understand the scope. Identity theft isn’t just about money. Sometimes it’s about access to services. Medical identity theft is when someone uses your information to receive medical care or benefits. Crooks have even applied for apartment rentals, mortgages, jobs, and tax refunds using other people’s identities.
- Freeze your accounts. If you think there’s been a breach, ask each credit bureau (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) to freeze your credit reports, which prevents anyone else from using your personal information to open a new line of credit. Put an alert on your credit that will warn you if attempts to use your name or credit.
- Move with confidence. It won’t take you long to do a security sweep of your digital activity and make some changes. Once you know you’ve done all you can, enjoy your digital life with confidence, not fear. Why let a crook rob you of anything more? Celebrate National Identity Theft Awareness Month (December) by doing everything you can do to shut down online criminals.
Toni Birdsong is a Family Safety Evangelist to McAfee. You can find her on Twitter @McAfee_Family. (Disclosures).