Identity Theft: How to Protect Yourself
Over the past few decades, as technology has risen so has identity theft. This scourge is responsible for more than $100 billion dollars in theft in the last six years alone.
1 What Is Identity Theft?
Identity theft is the acquisition and use of another person’s personal identity for illegal purposes. The primary driving reasons behind identity theft are many, and include:
- Criminal: One of the most destructive aspects of identity theft, this involves a person providing false information or documentation when they are arrested. These charges are placed under the given name, allowing them to avoid repercussions. Unfortunately, it means that these crimes are now under your name, opening you up to a world of hurt.
- Financial: Financially-motivated theft of identity is probably the most common variety seen today. This is done in a number of different ways, including opening up credit cards, tacking on extra purchases to an existing one, or stealing money directly from a bank account.
- Medical: A relatively new phenomenon, this involves a person stealing insurance information, and seeking medical care or drugs under false pretenses.
2 How Does It Happen?
There are a number of different ways that thieves can glean the information or documents needed to steal your identity. These include:
- Email Scams: More commonly known as “phishing,” this involves a criminal sending an email to a victim portraying themselves as someone else, such as a bank or the IRS. These emails request such information as Social Security number, banking info, or other personal information, which can then be used to disastrous ends.
- Viruses: Perhaps the fastest growing method, viruses have the power to root through your computer system, gather the target information, and send it back to the hacker electronically.
- Physical Theft: A stolen wallet or purse can give a criminal direct access to the documents and cards needed to steal an identity.
- Trash: While likely not as common of a practice today, personal trash can contain a vast amount of identifying information. This can be found on things like credit card or bank statements, as well as bills or receipts.
3 How to Protect Yourself
While the instances of identity theft are definitely on the rise, the ways to combat it have grown equally in effectiveness. Most attempts at identity theft can be thwarted by using the following simple and effective methods.
Identity theft is a serious crime that affects millions of Americans each year.
One of the most basic, and important, ways to avoid identity theft is strong and unpredictable passwords. Passwords are the key to so many aspects of personal and financial life, it only makes sense to ensure that these gateways are as secure as possible. Never use personal information in passwords, such as birth dates or pin codes. Use special character, spaces, or alternating upper and lower cases, to make it virtually impossible to guess. Change your passwords frequently, and never use the same one twice. Make sure of online password generators to help you create secure passwords.
Having strong and effective antivirus and anti-malware software is important for many reasons, not least of which is making sure no one uses these pieces of malicious code to steal your data. Because new viruses and Trojans are created virtually every day, it is of paramount importance to keep this software as up to date as possible, preferably on a daily basis. Run frequent scans on your computer to make sure nothing has sneaked in and is waiting to wreak havoc.
We live in a time when if you make it easy for someone to steal from you, someone will.
Your Internet Access
Using a public WiFi, such as those found in places like Starbucks, McDonalds, and other similar establishments is extremely fun and convenient. Unfortunately, they are also usually completely unsecured, and wide open to any hackers that may be monitoring them. Any traffic and information passing through the unsecured connection can be plucked out of the air by a criminal, and used for their personal gain or harm to you. As such, it is extremely vital that any of these connections are protected.
The best way to secure a public WiFi connection is by using a personal VPN. A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, acts as a middle man between you and your target services or websites, with connections made to the VPN server instead of directly. Any information passing through the VPN is encrypted, making it impossible for a third party or decipher it. If you plan on doing anything other than the most basic tasks on an unsecured network, always use a VPN.
Keeping an eye out for any anomalies on your credit report or bank and credit card statements is an excellent way to spot potential malfeasance as quickly as possible. Check out your statements as soon as they come in, looking for anything you know you did not purchase. Rather than large purchases, many criminals make smaller ones in the hopes that they will go undetected. While the small amount may not impact you too much financially then, it can quickly grow as the thief makes more and more transactions.
Another popular method is to enlist the services of one of the many monitoring businesses that have sprung up over the last decade. These companies pay close attention to your credit report very regularly and can spot a problem very quickly and efficiently. Many times, they will also give you free copies of your credit report, so you can monitor things yourself as well.
Social networking has become one of the most used and loved methods of communication and gathering information today. Unfortunately, not all people looking through your social media accounts are doing so innocently, they may have ulterior motives. As such, it is first of all important to watch what information you have posted on these open venues. Avoid any critical information, such as your actual birth date, your mother’s maiden name, or answers to popular security questions. It may also be advisable to set these accounts as private, so you can approve everyone that wants to see what you post.
While identity theft is certainly something to guard yourself against, it can be relatively easy to avoid as long as you are careful. Remember, your personal and financial information is precious, so taking the proper steps to minimize this risk is an excellent way to head off heartbreak and disaster down the line.