By Dan Gerard
We live in a digital world consisting of Facebook, Twitter, Google Places, online banking, digital versions of credit cards, and cell phones that do all this and more. Today, more than ever, it is critically important to understand what identity theft is, and how to mitigate the chances of it happening to you.
Identity theft is defined as the unauthorized use, or attempted misuse, of an existing credit card or other existing account, the misuse of personal information to open a new account or for another fraudulent purpose, or a combination of these types of misuse. The most common form of identity theft is the misuse of credit card information weighing in at a whopping 64.10% of all identity theft instances in 2013 alone.
For most of us, computers are at the center of everything we do. We spend most of our workday sitting at a computer. Our leisure time is spent posting exciting things on Facebook, tweeting about what we did on vacation, online shopping, emailing, or simply playing our favorite game on our phone. So how can we stay “connected” and still protect our identity? First, we have to understand how we are vulnerable.
How to protect yourself
It doesn’t matter if you are at home shopping comfortably from your recliner or out shopping at your favorite box store, guarding your credit card transactions is important. When shopping online, make sure you are visiting reputable websites. Making sure the website is secure before you make a transaction is one of the most important things you can do when online shopping. Before entering any personal or billing information, check the website’s address in the address bar. If it is a secure website, it should start with https://. Another thing you can check for is a padlock icon on your browser window, (not the website) usually near the address, which indicates it is a secure website as well.
If you think, “I don’t shop online because it’s not secure,” don’t be fooled. You are still vulnerable when shopping in retail stores. Criminal cashiers will watch for big dollar purchases where you have purchased several items and add additional charges without you noticing. Make sure you review your receipts before leaving the store, also making sure there are no cash withdraws on the receipt. You should pay close attention to the cashier, making sure they don’t scan your card with a hidden device, or walk away with your card – they might be recording you credit card information. When possible, use the self-pay devices that are found at most checkout counters, so your card never leaves your hand. Another good practice is to only leave the house with one or maybe two credit cards (only what you need) and keep them on your person, not in a purse, or bag where they can be easily lifted.
Is my password secure?
Adding a “2” to the end of your password doesn’t cut it! Aside from physically securing our devices and our data, our passwords are primarily our first and most important line of defense. More often than not, we sacrifice security for convenience, especially when it comes to our passwords. We want a password that is easy to remember and tend to get frustrated when we are forced to change it. For this reason it is important to spend some time developing a password scheme. By developing a password scheme, it will be easy to remember and you will be prepared when it comes time to change it.
For example, I like remote control airplanes and playing the guitar. These will be my two themes for creating my passwords. Next I will select two words that relate to each of my themes, wings and strings. I will pre-determine that the third and sixth letter in my passwords will always be upper case, and I will replace the first vowel in the first word with the number “7” and the first vowel in the second word with the “#” symbol. By following my password scheme, my password would look like this: w7NgsStr#ngs. This password meets all the complexity requirements. It has a minimum of 9 characters, uppercase, lowercase, alphanumeric and special characters. Not only is it easy to remember – all I need to remember is wings and strings – it is a very strong password as well. If you want to test out your password scheme, you can visit http://www.passwordmeter.com. Please do not enter the password you intend on using!
Taking out the trash
Take out the trash, the right way. Properly destroying our information prior to sending it out to the curb is another way we can prevent our identity from being compromised. Whether at the office or at home, we should always be aware of what we are throwing away. Don’t make the assumption that the recycle bin at work is a secure way of disposing of private information. Always be sure to cross-shred any documents that contain personal information such as account statements, credit card offers, invoices, really anything that has your name, date of birth, account numbers, credit card numbers, or can personally identify you. Believe it or not, there are people out there that go through the trash looking for your information.
“This email is too good to be true!” Well, you know how the saying goes. When checking your email, take a moment to look for a few clues that may tell you that it is a scam. Look at the sender’s address and make sure it is spelled correctly. Often times, the scammer will change just one or two characters of an email address from someone you know so that you think it is a legitimate email from that person. Scammers will also use your online shopping habits to target you and send seemingly good offers that may entice you to click on a link. Also, beware of emails that have no information in them other than a link, delete them immediately!
“My identity has been stolen, now what?” If your identity is compromised, the first thing you need to do is flag your credit by calling one of these three nationwide credit reporting companies, Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion. Next, order a credit report from each of them. They are all different. Lastly you will want to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, take the affidavit from the complaint and file a local police report. The affidavit and police report combined makeup an identity theft report. This can help stop collectors and get fraudulent information removed from your credit report. For more information, visit http://www.ftc.gov.
Unfortunately, there is no magical formula I can give you to protect your identity one hundred percent. There are some things that are just out of our control; just think of all the big name retail stores that have been hacked in the last year. The digital information that defines you as a person, if exposed, makes you extremely vulnerable to becoming an identity theft victim. It is for this reason we need to be aware of the methods used to steal our identity and protect it whenever possible. What it really comes down to is minimizing risk and being cautious about who, what and where we share our identity.