As more and more of our activities move from in-person transactions to online ones, the incidence of identity theft has increased. Any time you put personal information online, there is a risk involved. Your address, phone number, and even credit card information can be stolen and used by thieves, leaving you on the hook for thousands of dollars. Implementing security measures for your online activities is key to protecting yourself from being a victim of identity theft.
What is identity theft?
Any type of deception, crime, or scam that results in a loss of your personal data is considered identity theft. This can include your social security number, health information, credit card or banking information, user names, and passwords that are subsequently used to commit fraud or perpetrate a crime.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, up to 9 million Americans have their identities stolen every year, with at least 5 million personal records having been compromised since 2005. To put it in perspective, if these identity thefts were distributed evenly across the US population, each person would have had their identity stolen one and 2/3 times.
Identity theft can range from being an annoying inconvenience to costing thousands of dollars and causing tremendous reputation damage. At the extreme, some consumers have even been arrested for crimes committed under their stolen names.
How does identity theft happen?
Sometimes identity theft happens the old-fashioned way. Thieves steal information from your mailbox, dig through your trash for bank statements or bills, or steal your wallet and make a copy of your credit card.
It often happens online when consumers fall for phishing scams or hackers download malware onto computers and smartphones. This malware uses insecure wireless networks to retrieve sensitive information like user names and passwords that are then used to breach your personal data.
How do you protect your identity online?
There are a few steps you can take to prevent identity theft from occurring.
Use up-to-date security software on your computer and smartphone
Once it’s infected with malware, it’s very difficult to protect your information. The best course of action is to prevent any malware from being installed in the first place.
Learn to spot phishing scams
While some scams are easy to identify, others are not. Emails and instant messages can look legitimate. If, for example, you receive an email from your bank with the right name and logos, there’s a chance it’s not from your bank. It’s best not to use any links provided in the email and look up the information yourself on your banking website. The links are often to mock-up websites that steal your information.
Use strong passwords
Identity thieves’ prey on people who use simple passwords for their accounts. They like it even better if you use the same password for everything. Once they know what it is, they can access all your information. Passwords should be over ten characters and difficult to guess. Password managers are great tools to help you develop complex passwords and to help you keep track of them all.
Monitor and review your credit information
There are a couple of ways to do this. You can directly track your credit score with Experian, Transunion, or Equifax. These credit bureaus allow you to get one free credit report per year.
The other way to check is via a background check. You can run one on yourself using a background check site. You will be able to obtain any financial and credit information that is publicly available.
If you find transactions or credit information that you’re unaware of, you can take immediate steps to have fraudulent activity investigated.
Use reputable websites for purchasing items online
At a minimum, any site that you enter personal information into should be protected by a Hypertext transfer protocol, which you will know because the site URL begins with HTTPS. This protocol ensures that the site runs on an encrypted, secure connection to protect your information.
Keep an eye out for common signs that identity theft has occurred:
- False information on your credit reports or background check
- Missing bills or mail can indicate someone has hijacked your account
- Receiving credit cards that you didn’t apply for
- Getting denied on a credit application for no apparent reason
- Receiving calls about past due bills for purchases you didn’t make
Think twice before sharing information on a public, unsecured WiFi network
These networks are breeding grounds for your information to be hijacked. Using a VPN or virtual private network can help shield your information if you must use public WiFi.
Keeping your identity safe
If you consistently apply these security tips, you can defend and monitor your personal information and protect it from being stolen. In addition, being vigilant about your activities will allow you to be instantly alerted if a problem occurs.
Internet security systems specialize in protecting all your home network devices from identity theft by blocking malware and preventing hackers from gaining access. These systems will protect user names, passwords, and other personal information from ending up in the wrong hands.