Fear data breaches? 10 steps to protect yourself
Identity thieves are getting craftier all the time. Here are steps to keep your defenses current and reduce your chances of being victimized.
This post comes from Allison Martin at partner site Money Talks News.
Identity theft is at an all-time high, and shows no signs of abating. Those highly publicized data breaches at Target and other major stores are proof of that, and experts say we can expect more of the same.
And guess what complaint topped the Federal Trade Commission's annual list of consumer gripes for the 14th consecutive year? You've got it: identity theft. According to the FTC, more than 290,000 Americans filed identity theft complaints with the agency last year.
Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself. Consumer advocate Adam Levin of Credit.com calls them the three M's -- minimize the risk, monitor, and manage the damage. Let's look at how you can put them into practice.
1. Surf the Web with caution
Planning to catch up on a few assignments while sitting at the local Panera Bread? Not a bad idea, but refrain from conducting any tasks that require you to share confidential information, such as passwords or bank accounts, over a public Wi-Fi connection.
And if you are using a public computer at a library or hot spot, be sure to log off immediately when you're done. If you fail to heed this warning, be mindful that your chances of falling victim to an identity thief will increase tremendously.
2. Secure electronics with a password
Isn't it funny how many people password protect their computer, but fail to exercise the same level of caution with their phones? Tablets and smartphones deserve the same layer of protection as computers, so you should definitely lock them down.
But refrain from making your passwords identical or predictable. Also, keep them in a secure place, and don't forget to change them regularly.
3. Automate security updates
Your computer should have a firewall as well as anti-spyware and anti-virus software. Set your security software to update automatically, the FTC recommends. It also says:
You can find free security software from well-known companies. Also, set your operating system and Web browser to update automatically.
Don't download apps unless you're absolutely sure that they're safe.
4. Be very careful what you click on
Tired of ads appearing out of the blue while you're surfing the Web? Turn on your pop-up blocker. And don't click on links within pop-ups if one should appear. Quickly click on the "close" button.
Don't fall for those pop-ups that say malware has been detected on your computer and offer to clean it for you.
Also, watch out for suspicious emails that appear to be from financial institutions or companies you do business with or those that appear to be from the IRS or other government agencies. If you think your bank is truly trying to get a hold of you, give them a call instead.
The FTC also says:
Don't open attachments in emails unless you know who sent it and what it is. Opening attachments -- even in emails that seem to be from friends or family -- can install malware on your computer.
5. Keep it brief with telemarketers
Ever received an unsolicited call from a telemarketer with an offer that seems too good to be true? The representative on the other line claiming to represent a major hotel chain or some other business could be an identity thief in disguise.
Another common phone scam is the call from someone claiming to be a Microsoft tech. Microsoft has an entire Web page dedicated to this. It says, in part:
Cybercriminals don't just send fraudulent email messages and set up fake websites. They might also call you on the telephone and claim to be from Microsoft. They might offer to help solve your computer problems or sell you a software license.
6. Handle mail with care
It is very easy to become irritated with mail, especially if you regularly receive a large amount. However, you should check your mailbox daily and open your mail as quickly as possible, looking for evidence of identity theft. For instance, are your children getting credit card offers?
Before you dispose of mail that includes personal information about you, such as credit card offers, run it through a cross-cut shredder.
Also, refrain from mailing bill payments and other sensitive documents from your home. Instead, visit the nearest post office or drop them in U.S. Postal Service box to protect your personal information.
7. Secure confidential documents in your home
Most paperwork you need to keep don't need to be in paper form. "Don't Store Your Tax Return -- Toss It Out" explains how to securely store your important documents digitally.
For those papers you need to keep -- generally, paperwork with original signatures or raised seals, like wills, contracts, titles and deeds -- should be stored in a locked and fireproof safe in your house. Scan them to provide a backup.
8. Remain vigilant about account activity at all times
Log on to your bank and credit card accounts throughout the week and review the transactions to ensure they are free of errors, omissions and most importantly, fraud.
You can't stop hackers from stealing your personal data from big businesses, but you can eliminate your liability for fraudulent transactions by quickly reporting them.
9. Check your credit reports
Inaccurate information on your credit reports is another potential indicator of identity theft. Be sure to visit AnnualCreditReport.com to access your credit reports. You can retrieve one free copy per year from each of the three major credit bureaus. Stagger the requests by accessing one report every four months.
10. Immediately report any fraudulent activity
If your identity is compromised, the FTC recommends that you take immediate action. You should:
- Contact your creditor or financial institution to dispute the charges and order a new card, if applicable.
- Contact one of the three major credit bureaus and place a fraud alert or freeze on your credit profile.
- Create an identity theft affidavit with the FTC.
- File a police report and use the identity theft affidavit as supporting documentation.
- Notify the postal inspector if you are victimized by mail fraud.
- Notify the Internal Revenue Service if you are victimized by tax fraud.
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