There are many safety lessons we learn as children. Some reminders, like “look both ways when you cross the street,” are meant to protect us from harm. Others, like “cover your mouth when you sneeze,” are meant to protect everyone else.
Through constant reinforcement, good habits eventually become second nature. Lessons are passed down, and everyone becomes safer.
But what happens when the dangers are new, and we all have to learn our lessons the hard way?
This is the situation America faces with the increasing risk of identity theft. The rise of digital fraud has created new challenges that many consumers simply aren’t prepared for – and unfortunately, the problem is only getting worse each with each passing year.
A study by Javelin Strategy & Research estimated $16 billion was stolen from 15.4 million Americans last year via identity theft. That’s more than 6 out of every 100 adults – and more disturbingly, that rate was up 16% over the prior year.
Longer term, nearly 2 in 5 adults have had their identity stolen at some point in their lives. And no wonder, as the digital revolution of the last few decades has distributed consumers’ information widely across the internet. Technology isn’t just a convenience anymore, but a necessity.
But that means no one is safe.
If you have a credit card or a debit card, you’re at risk. If you have a checking account or a savings account, you’re at risk. In truth, the minute you are born and issued a Social Security number, you’re at risk.
The only question is, what are you going to do about it?
As technology evolves, scammers will surely adapt and develop new techniques. But American consumers are not powerless, and can take some simple but effective steps to stop identity theft before it starts.
After Reviewing Identity Theft Protection Services, we strongly advise using these 12 prevention tips, you can greatly reduce the likelihood that you’ll become a victim to identity theft.
Prevention Tip #1 – Protect Your Social Security Card. Most people know better than to simply give out their Social Security number to strangers. But a stolen or lost wallet is as good as the same thing. Make sure your card is in a secure location, like a fire-proof safe, away from prying eyes.
Prevention Tip #2 – Ignore High-Pressure, Unsolicited Inquiries. Scammers who contact you via unsolicited e-mails or phone calls will prey on your emotions to get their hands on your Social Security number or other info. Don’t cave in to these high-pressure demands. While some businesses like a bank or utility company require your Social Security number, these organizations realize the sensitivity of your personal information and will accommodate your privacy concerns. Fraudsters, however, will realize you’re on to them and move on.
Prevention Tip #3 – Collect Mail Promptly. Sensitive information can be found on your bills or even on unsolicited offers for credit cards or home loans. Don’t make it easy for identity thieves by leaving that information in your mailbox where it’s easy to steal. If you are away from home for more than a few days, contact the U.S. Postal Service toplace a hold on your mail.
Prevention Tip #4 – Watch Bills Carefully. Paying your monthly bills is important, but so is monitoring the billing process. Did you miss receiving your credit card statement last month? Don’t simply presume it got misplaced by your postman – contact the sender to see if it was sent correctly and may have gone missing. Did expenses post to your account that you don’t remember charging, or do your receipts not match your statements? Then contact the merchant no matter how small the discrepancies. Identity thieves thrive when consumers are distracted, so stay vigilant and contact financial institutions immediately if anything looks fishy.
Prevention Tip #5 – Shred Your Statements. Sensitive information from older bills or statements should not simply be placed at the curb. Many excellent personal document shredders are available for less than $100, and its money well spent. If you’re not willing to invest in such a gadget, then look for community-sponsored shredding events and bring your documents. Many municipalities or institutions organize these events at no cost in an effort to help stop identity theft in their backyard.
Prevention Tip #6 – Always Use Password Protections. Most people are in the habit of locking the door to their house or to their car. So why would you leave your electronics unprotected? It only takes a few seconds to log into your iPhone or laptop with a custom password, and the small convenience of an unlocked device is not worth the large security risk you’re creating.
Prevention Tip #7 – Use Strong and Unique Passwords. Of course, those protections don’t count for much if all your accounts use “Password1234” as the login. Generic or easy-to-hack passwords don’t add much protection. And without unique passwords, identity thieves simply have to crack one account and they have access to everything. And of course, make sure you’re regularly changing those passwords once or twice a year. Don’t make it easy on fraudsters with lazy password habits.
Prevention Tip #8 – Don’t Save Sensitive Info in Your Browser. It’s tempting to save login information in your favorite web browser to make it easy to access your accounts. But don’t ever save passwords or used to access online banking or other sensitive accounts. A good rule of thumb is that if a site allows you to create an account anonymously or with a pseudonym, it’s probably safe to save a login for convenience sake. But if you’re actually logging in as yourself – or more importantly, with your credit card – you don’t want that information easily available if someone gets hold of your browsing history.
Prevention Tip #9 – Be Wary of Public Networks. If you’re ever connected to public WiFi at a coffee shop or a library, remember that hackers and identity thieves can use the internet connection itself to access your computer. You can’t control who else is on the network, but you can turn off things like file sharing or browse anonymously or in “private” mode to control what information others may have access to. You can even turn off WiFi altogether and use your wireless data instead to prevent anyone from using a public network to gain access to your devices.
Prevention Tip #10 – Look for HTTPS sites. Thanks to the rise of high-tech identity theft, websites of all shapes and sizes have had to adapt. An important tool they use to combat hackers and fraudsters is HTTPS programming – which stands for “hyper text transfer protocol secure.” In a nutshell, websites built with this code way will encrypt the connection between their servers and your individual device. That means any information shared between you and a website cannot be intercepted. Many recent web browsers will warn you if you’re on an unsecure site, but an easy way to see for yourself is to look at the very beginning of the website URL – such as https://www.reviews.com.
Prevention Tip #11 – Always Use Up-to-Date Protection Software. Never skimp on antivirus or antimalware software. There are a lot of clever words to describe the kind of cyberattacks that identity thieves use to steal your personal information – spyware, Trojan horses, backdoors – but the shared thread is that something sinister is placed on your computer to monitor your activity and share your personal information whenever you use it somewhere on the internet. Since scammers are always creating new malicious software to exploit consumers, it’s crucial to have the latest protections installed at all times and run regular updates to keep your defenses strong.
Prevention Tip #12 – Use Common Sense and Be Vigilant. If someone you don’t know asks you for sensitive information, don’t engage with them. If someone you don’t know sends an email with an attached file you didn’t ask for, don’t open it. If someone calls and demands your Social Security number as part of a promise that you’ll receive a massive windfall or a threat that you’ll suffer a massive penalty, be skeptical. While modern digital fraud is a bit more sophisticated than the scams of yesteryear, the one thing they have at their core is deception. You should always be suspicious of a stranger soliciting your personal information – whether it’s in person, on the phone, or online.