Protect yourself

Safeguard your identity—both online and off!

By Alexandra Kay

Seventy percent of American consumers say they worry about identity theft and credit card hacking, according to a recent Gallup research poll. And with all the recent news about hacks—especially the latest at credit bureau firm Equifax—it’s hard not to be worried. Unfortunately, our worry isn’t groundless. Identity theft hit a record high in 2016, with more than 15 million Americans falling prey to fraudsters, who got away with $16 billion. If you’re concerned that you might be at risk, here’s what you need to do to protect yourself.

Low-tech protections

Limit what you carry
You don’t need every credit card with you all the time, nor do you need to have your Social Security card in your purse or wallet every day. Each time you stuff something in your purse with identifying information, you create a vulnerability for yourself if it’s compromised, so clean out your purse or wallet and make sure you only carry what you absolutely need, advises Eva Velasquez, CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center. “As women, we’ve made huge strides when it comes to paying attention to our surroundings for our physical safety,” says Velasquez. “But it’s not only about protecting your physical body. We have to treat our identity as part of our safety regimen.”

Opt out

Consider opting out of prescreened offers of credit and insurance by mail, says the Federal Trade Commission. Having those preapproved offers in an unlocked mailbox can leave you open to having your identity stolen by a thief opening a credit card in your name, says Risa 
Pecoraro, executive vice president of product for CyberScout, an identity protection company. To opt out of such offers, call 1-888-567-8688 or go to Optoutprescreen.com. The three nationwide credit reporting companies operate the phone number and website, and you can opt out permanently or for five years.

Properly dispose of mail and other personal items
Any paperwork should be shredded before your toss it. This includes any financial statements, old credit cards, letters from lenders, paperwork with a Social Security or driver’s license number, old prescriptions, health insurance forms, and old checks. Computers or other electronics that are being thrown away should be purged of any personal information stored on them. That means using a wipe utility program to overwrite the hard drive. Even in today’s modern high-tech world, dumpster diving still exists.

Don’t share personal information

Be mindful of what information you’re putting out there for people to see and hear. Be aware that when you put your birthday, email, and phone number on Facebook or other social media sites, for example, that information can be used to put together a profile about you, says Pecoraro. “It’s about being wise about what you share as well as location sharing. Don’t tell people where you are all the time.” Have an awareness of why people are asking for specific information and question whether or not you really need to share. If you’re asked for your Social Security number at your doctor’s office, for instance, inquire if some other piece of identifying information can be used.

And be alert to impersonators who call you looking for personal or financial information. Phishing doesn’t only exist in the online world. Avoid giving out any information over the phone unless you’ve initiated contact with a company and know whom you’re dealing with.

Lock it up
Whether it’s your car or your mailbox, keep it locked. Although much of identity theft occurs online these days, an unlocked car or mailbox still leaves information exposed for opportunistic thieves. The data you create in your real life has to be protected, says Velasquez. Taking important documents directly to the post office instead of leaving them in your home mailbox for pickup is safest. Likewise, don’t leave important documents in the glove box of your car or lying on the seat where they can tempt someone to break in.

High-tech Protections

Check privacy settings/use security software
Make sure to install antivirus, antispyware, and antimalware software on your laptop or desktop computer, and use a firewall for protection as well. Then set preferences to update these protections as frequently as possible. “Protect against intrusions and infections that can compromise your computer files or passwords by installing security patches for your operating system and other software programs,” advises the Federal Trade Commission.

Manage your passwords

Using the same password on several accounts and for an extended period of time is not smart.

Ideally, you want to change passwords frequently and make them as unique and complicated as you can manage. “The most common letter password is still ‘password,’ and the most common numeric one is ‘123456,’” says Velasquez. Maintaining different passwords on a bunch of different accounts can be tough, says Pecoraro, but a password management tool can help since using one means you’ll only ever have to remember a single password. (LastPass and CyberScout both have this service.) If you can only remember one password, make it a phrase that’s specific to you, she says, something like ‘My favorite vacation is Costa Rica,’ which will be nearly impossible for someone to duplicate.

Watch out for phishing scams

In a phishing scam, someone tries to imitate your bank or the IRS or some other legitimate entity in order to get you to click on a link and provide information or give it over the phone. The number of phishing scams out there is growing all the time, and many of these scams come as emails. Before you provide any information, take a few minutes to think, says Pecoraro. If it’s a legitimate email, you should be able to connect with someone who can tell you it’s a legitimate number. Also, the IRS will never email you, and your own bank won’t send you an email asking for your account number and password.

Finally, phishing scams frequently contain grammar and language errors, so read carefully, and be on the lookout for anything that seems off. Using a browser extension like Truman Grade that tells you the likelihood that a website is for real can also help.

Skip public WiFi
“Public WiFi is a handy service, but you have to remember that it’s like a public pool,” says Velasquez. “Everyone is swimming in it, and no one is covered up.” This means that any transactions you conduct over public WiFi could potentially be visible to anyone with the inclination to start looking. If you are going to be using public WiFi, use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) like IPVanish or NordVPN to stay anonymous online.

Protect your mobile device

Remember that staying safe online includes your mobile device. Whether it’s a tablet or a phone, that piece of hardware is pretty much a computer in your hands—and it has all kinds of information a thief could use to steal your identity. “The majority of people I talk to don’t have a password or pin on their phone,” says Velasquez. “Treat that device with the level of importance it needs. It’s carrying around all of your data. Protect it so that if you lose it someone can’t just open it and start using your data.” Programs like Prey (Preyprotect.com) allow you to find and remote-wipe a phone, tablet, or laptop. DW

Alexandra Kay is a part-time freelance writer who lives in Orange County, New York. She has contributed to numerous consumer publications, including Consumer Reports Money Adviser, First for Women, RealSimple, and Business Jet Traveler.

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