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November 18, 2018

The Rise of Identity Theft and How to Protect Yourself

The latest figures on identity theft show an alarming increase in occurrence and criminal sophistication around the world. Last year, over 60 million Americans suffered identity theft to some extent and 15 million were affected monetarily.

What Types of Identity Theft Are Common?

A 2017 Harris Poll reported the most common identity theft is employment/tax related where a criminal uses another person’s social security number to secure a job or file an income tax return. The next most common is where a credit card number is stolen to make purchases. Third in line is phone or utility theft where personal information is used to establish service fraudulently. Fourth on the list is fraudulently opening a bank account in someone else’s name or getting a loan. The fifth most common is renting premises under someone else’s identity. Finally, government benefit fraud is where a trickster uses another’s identity to obtain health, welfare or other benefits.
As you see, identity theft is more complex than a hack into email or Facebook and has even more potentially serious results than fraudulent charges on a credit card or bank account.
What can you do to make certain that you don’t join the ranks of those whose identity and privacy have been compromised? It’s tough to safeguard your information completely in a connected world, and nothing will render you invulnerable, but it is possible to make identity theft much more difficult for would-be fraudsters.

Common Sense Steps to Take

First, your social security number should be protected. Don’t give your social security number out to unauthorized individuals. Reputable establishments/organizations that really need your social security number for verification will only request the last four numbers. Never respond to an email request for your social security number, and be just as wary of anyone asking for it over the phone. Why do they need it? Are they even who they say they are?
Your computers should be password protected for use. They should automatically require a password after a certain period of non-use.
Make certain you’re not giving out too much of your personal information online. It’s best not to publish your birthdate on social sites for example. It’s just another important piece of information a criminal can piece together to impersonate you. If you use your anniversary or children’s birthdates as passwords for your accounts, that’s a big no-no as well.
Never respond to emails, even if they look legitimate, to provide your account number so that your services/account can be checked. Instead, directly contact the requester to make certain that they contacted you in the first place.

Securing Your Documents and Mail

Keep your bills, statements and other important documents away safely. You don’t want a visitor going through them. You can keep them in a locked desk, or, there are inexpensive but secure document boxes that can be secured by a lock. Alternatively, some people opt for a safety deposit box at a financial institution.
Don’t throw documents with bank account numbers, birthdates, social security numbers and other personal information in the trash. This includes bank statements and bills. Invest in a shredder or take your documents to a business that shreds documents.
Make certain you have a secure, locked, tamper-proof mailbox. Alternatively, a secure, U.S. Postal Service post office box is a small monthly investment that can keep your mail safe.

Be Wary of Credit Card Information Theft

Keep your credit and debit cards secure. One of your only protections against fraudulent online charges is the three-digit number on the back of your credit card. Don’t hand that card to anybody. In addition, while it might be super convenient to use the card swiper at the pump to pay for gas, take the extra time to walk in and pay at the register - it’s much more secure when you consider the increasing threat of fake credit card skimmers.
Be wary of having your credit card details stored on your computer in any way, and avoid having your credit card details stored by any online company, as that opens up the possibility of hackers gaining your credit card details from security breaches on the remote website.

Don’t Check Your Bank Balance, Pay Bills, or Order Online When You’re Using Public Wi-Fi

When you set up your home Wi-Fi give it a name that can’t be immediately traced to your name or your address. You don’t want to make it easy for someone to identify you so that they can snoop through your online traffic. Consider setting up your Wi-Fi network to not broadcast an SSID at all (this makes your network invisible unless the user knows the name of the network as well as the password.)

Paid Identity Theft Protection

You should have strong anti-virus and anti-malware programs on your computer. You can also invest in identity theft insurance or enroll in established identity theft protection services. Should you be the victim of credit theft, you may need to consult with a credit repair company that can put your credit score back on track.

Where and How to Report Identity Theft

The Federal Trade Commission is responsible for investigating identity theft. Go to IdentityTheft.gov to report any instances. This website lists all of the actions you need to take after reporting the theft. You may also want to contact your local police department to make a report.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.

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