Identity theft is common. So common, in fact, that according to a poll, 60 million Americans were affected in 2018. To fraudsters, data is a valuable commodity, and your risk of exposure happens every time you connect. In addition to more victims having to pay out of pocket for their losses, a significant number of people do not yet use a more secure internet connection. For example, according to VPN Mentor, only 16% of Americans used VPNs (Virtual Privacy Networks) when connected to the internet, and that’s giving identity thieves precisely the breach they need to access lucrative information. To state it simply, VPNs can keep you safer when connected to networks that aren't your own, like public Wi-Fi.
Preventing breaches is essential. There are several ways to try to keep your data – and identity – safe.
1) Secure your connection
An Internet connection is your portal to a world of information, but that portal can work both ways. When online, you’ll want to make sure that your data is safe by using a secure connection.
At home, you can make sure your Wi-Fi router is secure by choosing a unique router password when setting it up or by logging into the admin settings. Make sure your admin credentials are also unique.
If you use public Wi-Fi connections as your primary way to connect to the Internet, then you should consider investing in a paid virtual private network (VPN) service. A VPN service is a simple tool to use that hides your IP address and keeps your online actions encrypted. While there are many different offerings that are free of charge, you should beware of free services because many of them will collect data on your while you are using their VPN and then sell it.
2) Leave your data at home
Tax ID theft weaponizes social security numbers to falsely file tax returns. Medical ID theft does the same, with fraudsters sending fake bills to insurers or obtaining healthcare services in the victim’s name. Both often involve stolen insurance and social security numbers, so keeping your social security card locked in a safe can be an excellent way to protect sensitive information. Don’t carry your SSN number with you in any form.
3) Make sure your firewall is up to date
Outdated firewalls can be a huge opening for data thieves. While those computer updates may seem annoying, they are there for a reason; to protect against current threats or fix bugs that may leave your identity on the line. It’s beneficial to know how to check your firewall. If it is outdated or needs updating, make sure to take advantage of free firewall upgrades and tools.
4) Avoid phishing scams
Phishing scams trick you into giving away your personal data by posing as legitimate brands and websites, or friends, colleagues, or family. This is one of the easiest forms of identity theft to avoid. While your computer or phone likely has ways to block suspicious sites, you still need to be on the lookout for phishing attempts. Pay attention to spelling errors, strange URLs, and bogus sender info. Never give away sensitive data over email or confirm your SSN on the phone.
5) Freeze your credit files
Equifax, Experian, and other credit information service providers represent a potential vulnerability. Credit freezes prevent fraudsters and potential lenders from accessing your credit report unless you unfreeze it. This way, you can allow access temporarily when you apply for new credit and then freeze it again after.
An internet search for “how to freeze your credit” can get you started, or you can read about how to freeze with each credit agency here.
6) Go beyond simple passwords
Using different passwords for every site is important, but even the strongest password can be accessed through a poor security question. Forgotten password services are easy to foil with security responses answered with the information you provide on social media. Keep your question obscure, and use biometric logins such as your fingerprint or facial recognition, and enable two-factor authentication where you can. Also, take particular care to protect your banking accounts with strong passwords.
7) Shred your documents
Dumpster diving remains a popular way of stealing information. Identity thieves use bills and bank statements to access your data, so try using a private mailbox and shred sensitive records before you throw them away.
8) Monitor your accounts
By frequently checking your banking activities, you can stop identity theft the moment it happens. Set up notification alerts on your accounts and dispute even the smallest false charges. They might indicate a breach.
Identity theft has affected millions of Americans, and everyone is a potential victim. By keeping an eye on your accounts, awareness of scams and phishing attempts, and a few key tools, you can avoid becoming a victim.