10 ways to protect your identity
We’re online more than ever, in large part because it allows us to take advantage of online conveniences like bill pay and booking appointments. But these many benefits might also leave us exposed to risks, like identity theft.
Identity theft is characterized by one person using another’s personal or financial data for their benefit. Cybercriminals may take information like a person’s name, birthday, Social Security number, driver’s license number, home address, and bank account information and use it for their benefit. A name and matching financial information, for instance, can be used to apply for credit cards or open new accounts.
The good news is that you can safeguard yourself and your family with some best practices — allowing you to enjoy your best life online and worry less about cybercriminals. Share these 10 tips with your family to help keep your entire household safe.
Password-protect your devices with strong passwords
A good habit to get into is to password-protect your computer, tablet, and mobile devices through unique, strong passwords. These devices are home to some of your most sensitive information, including everything from emails to apps that connect to your bank accounts. So, if these devices fall into the wrong hands, a password makes it harder to access your personal data.
Take some time to come up with your passwords, though. It’s important to create strong passwords that hackers can’t guess. A strong password will include a mix of symbols, numbers, and letters. Steer clear of simple passwords like “123456” (it might seem obvious, but this is one of the most common passwords people use). Also, avoid including information that other people can guess, like your birthdate, home address, or name.
Don’t forget to use different passwords for different accounts. If you use the same password across multiple accounts, and a fraudster gains access to one account, they may access the others. Fortunately, McAfee’s identity protection services include a password manager, which can help secure your account credentials across multiple devices. This tool encrypts passwords, storing them safely and making it easy to keep track of them.
Learn how to identify and avoid phishing scams
Identity thieves are skilled at leveraging new technologies. Phishing is one great example of this. Phishing involves criminals masquerading as trustworthy entities, such as government agencies or banks, and using this trusted position to get sensitive information. Phishing scams started with traditional mail. They’re now also done via phone, text, and email.
As a general rule of thumb, never give out any personal information when contacted by a business, bank, or another entity. Also, make sure your email spam filters detect phishing attempts. Never open emails from people you don’t know, and don’t download email attachments without knowing what they are. Some phishing emails include malware, which can infiltrate your device and access personal data. A McAfee Total Protection plan is an all-in-one protection solution that can help you detect and avoid malware.
Fraudulent websites may also use phishing techniques. A website may look similar to the legitimate website of a mortgage lender, bank, or credit card company but might be a fraudulent platform seeking to get information from consumers. Always verify that any website you visit is the legitimate website of the institution, and consider McAfee antivirus software, which offers a safe browsing solution.
Set up alerts through your bank
When financial identity theft occurs, this can also impact financial institutions like banks and lenders. So, they’re eager to prevent fraud, as well. One way they do this is through fraud alerts. You can set up your online banking to issue fraud alerts — for example, via an email, text message, or phone call — if your bank suspects suspicious activity on your account.
In some cases, a bank will also freeze your account until you verify whether the activity is legitimate. This is a common tactic used to protect against credit card fraud. Geo-control is one example: If you live in the U.S., but a German IP address uses your credit card, your credit card provider will likely issue an alert. You can also set up alerts for certain transaction amounts or types.
Review your credit report regularly
Your credit report is one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal for catching identity thieves and stopping them in their tracks. You’re entitled to a free credit report every 12 months via AnnualCreditReport.com, an initiative of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). You can get a free copy of your report from each major credit bureau: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
Review your report thoroughly, checking for inaccuracies. When credit monitoring, check your:
- Personal information: Verify that your name, address, phone number, birthdate, Social Security number, and employment details are correct.
- Accounts: Confirm that all accounts listed are yours and current. Keep an eye out for unrecognized credit cards, utility accounts, phone accounts, or streaming accounts.
- Public records: Check for foreclosures, civil suits, liens, or bankruptcies. If these issues are on your credit report and you don’t recognize them, you might be affected by identity fraud.
If you find any discrepancies, contact the appropriate credit reporting company. You should also contact the relevant financial institution and visit IdentityTheft.gov. You can report the suspected identity theft and find resources to help you recover.
Be mindful of what you share on social media
Social media is great for connecting with others online, but it does open the door to some vulnerabilities. Be careful about what you post, and steer clear of sharing personal details like your home address, children’s names, pet’s names, or birthdays, which some people use as passwords. If a social media platform offers two-factor authentication, opt in.
Images are another touchy subject. Never post photos that include private data, like a picture of your passport or vaccine card. Consider what’s in the background of any photos — from your home (with a house number) to mail with your address. Finally, you may want to set your visibility to private on all social media accounts, limiting who can view them. And even if your account is private, you should still follow the above tips.
Shred sensitive documents
Some identity thieves get people’s personal information by dumpster diving. One solution? Invest in a paper shredder. You’ll be able to shred documents into tiny bits that are hard to piece together, making it that much harder for someone else to piece together any personal information they contain.
Here are some documents worth shredding:
- Debit card statements, credit card statements, and bank statements that contain personal financial information
- Invoices or receipts containing details like financial account numbers
- Documents containing your Social Security number, like pay stubs and work contracts
- Junk mail with contact information, like your name and address
- Old photos and IDs, which people can use to create fake IDs
- Shipping labels, like those you might get from online retailers to make returns
- Medical records or receipts, which may contain insurance information
- Canceled checks
If you’re not sure whether something needs to be shredded, go ahead and destroy it. It only takes seconds, and you’re better off safe than sorry.
Protect all of your devices with antivirus software
Whether you use a computer, tablet, or mobile device for many of your online activities, like paying bills, these devices contain a lot of personal data. So, it’s good to protect them from hackers. Install antivirus software like McAfee’s to protect against viruses and spyware. It would be best if you also had a firewall, which is a network security system that controls the incoming and outgoing network traffic based on set security parameters.
To take your device security a step further, you may also want to invest in a virtual private network (VPN). This helps hide your online activity. It can safeguard against hackers on public networks but is also worth using at home. It hides details like browsing activity, personal data, and IP address from potential snoops. McAfee also offers VPN services.
Keep personal documents in a safe space
While your computer, tablet, or mobile device may hold a great deal of personal data, you likely also have hard copies of sensitive documents worth protecting. Documents like your birth certificate, Social Security card, and passport contain valuable information that identity thieves can use for personal gain, so you want to make sure they’re kept in a safe space.
Don’t simply shove these documents into your desk drawer. It’s best to keep them in a locked, fireproof home safe with a secure code. To keep things organized, put each document in a protective plastic sleeve and put the sleeves in a binder. This can be useful if you have a large family and need to keep track of everyone’s data.
Follow the news to learn about data breaches
Sophisticated hackers don’t just target individuals. They may also try to infiltrate businesses, government agencies, higher education institutions, health care facilities, and any other organization that gathers sensitive consumer information. If an entity is subject to a data breach, they’re legally required to notify any consumers who may have been impacted.
However, it’s still good to inform yourself about potential breaches that may affect you. Larger-scale data security risks are usually reported in the media. We also post about data breaches on the McAfee blog. If an entity you do business with has been affected, change your passwords and the passwords of any related accounts immediately.
Know the warning signs of identity theft
Knowing possible signs of identity theft can help you catch it early so that you can continue to enjoy your time online. Educate yourself and your family about these warning signs, ensuring everybody stays safe. Here are some possible indications identity thieves have targeted you:
- You receive phone calls from debt collectors about accounts you aren’t familiar with. Don’t provide personal information over the phone immediately. Check your credit report to get the details about the debts in question.
- Your credit score experiences unexplained changes. Get a copy of your credit report from the major credit reporting agencies to find out why.
- Your bank accounts or credit cards have unknown charges you (and your family) can’t account for. Contact your financial institution to report the suspected fraud, providing relevant documentation to back up your claims. You can also report fraud to your local government.
- You receive a fraud alert from your financial institution. Check any activity deemed potentially fraudulent as soon as possible.
- You get mail addressed to another person’s name. This could include medical bills, W-2 forms related to unfamiliar employers, or credit card bills, for example. Follow up with the relevant institution.
- You experience problems with your tax return For example, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) may reject your filing if someone else has already filed in your name (to get your tax refund). Contact the IRS fraud department.
You’re only a step away from better protection
The internet keeps all of us connected, but that’s why identity theft protection is important. With people increasingly connected, doing more, and sharing more online, cybercriminals can pinpoint weaknesses and take advantage. Hackers are ready to leverage your information for personal gain, and identity theft is no exception.
McAfee is here to help. McAfee’s identity protection services provide 24/7 monitoring of your email addresses and bank accounts, providing up to $1 million worth of ID theft coverage. You deserve to enjoy the comfort offered by the internet without stressing about identity theft. Implement the best practices above in your household so that you and your loved ones can stay connected with confidence.