We’ve all seen the commercials for identity theft protection. As the world becomes more and more digital, our personal information is more vulnerable than ever. Identity theft and fraud have quickly risen to be some of the most common crimes in the world, and the numbers keep growing.
It’s unfortunate but true – there are people out there will lie and manipulate you into giving them your information, and bolder ones that will outright steal it from you. Phishing e-mails, websites selling programming embedded with malware, and hackers all have made a business out of stealing your personal information, and it gets easier all the time.
How Identity Theft can Turn Your Life Upside Down.
What’s really alarming is that identity theft is not something you know you’re a victim of right away. It can take years, or even just looking at a credit report, to notice the effects, which can be life altering and catastrophic. Thieves can use your personal information to make fraudulent charges, take out lines of credit, and even commit crimes.
Even more disconcerting is the fact that this is something your financial institution and the IRS isn’t likely to pick up on. It’s estimated that 66% of consumers that had fraudulent charges noticed them before their banking institutions did. Many of us don’t go over our bank statements with a fine-toothed comb, so who knows how long someone could get away with using your social security number to run your credit score into the ground.
Since identity theft is literally stealing someone’s very private personal information, it can be incredibly difficult to prove that you weren’t the one making fraudulent purchases or committing crimes. After spending thousands on litigation costs, you may find that you’re still unable to have the damaging purchases removed from your credit report, and in many cases you never recover stolen funds.
The trouble is, criminals are getting smarter. The length of time that a thief uses your information keeps getting shorter and shorter, making it even more difficult to catch the perpetrator. When your information is stolen, most thieves will only use it for around six weeks, then quickly abandon their endeavors and move onto another victim to avoid detection. By the time a victim finally realizes the damage, they’re long gone.
All of this sounds really scary, and honestly, it should.
Identity theft isn’t one of those things that never happens to anyone you know – most people have at least had their Facebook hacked, and from there it’s usually very easy to access a person’s other accounts. Since many people use the same password for multiple accounts, it doesn’t take long for a determined hacker to gain access to more sensitive accounts, like Paypal and online banking.
Preventing Identity Theft
Identity theft, while prevalent and increasingly common, can be prevented. All it takes is a little caution on your end of things, and plenty of diligence. One of the most basic things you can do to prevent excessive damage to your credit is to monitor it regularly.
While it’s true that frequent inquiries into your credit history can negatively affect your score, someone running rampant with your social security number can do far greater damage. There are credit monitoring services that, for a monthly fee, will keep you informed on changes to your credit score, and even send you alerts when something starts to look a little fishy. If you can spare a few extra bucks a month, it’s definitely worth the added peace of mind.
Be Password Savvy
On the preventative side of things, ramping on your security can help you avoid dealing with a sticky situation in the first place. For one thing, be very careful about who you give your personal information to. Never share passwords with anyone, and never use the same password for more than one account. I know it seems impossible to keep track of all of that login information sometimes, and it can be tempting to stick with one easy to remember password, but trust me, hackers are counting on this. There are sites, like LastPass, that can help you create and keep track of secure passwords.
Be on the Lookout for Crooks
It’s also to be very important when giving out personal information online. Be particularly wary when shopping online. While it’s perfectly reasonable for a company to require payment information such as a credit card number, they should never need a social security or driver’s license number. In addition, whenever possible, use a secure payment service like Paypal, or even Bitcoin, to add an extra level of security to online payments.
Phishing is the practice of luring customers into clicking on links that’s sole purpose is to steal money or information from them. They typically do this by putting a link in an e-mail or on a website that is actually a download for software containing malware, which can wreak havoc on your system. If you ever get an e-mail with a link in it from a company you’re not familiar with, be very careful about clicking on them, or discard the e-mail altogether.
Using Secured Websites
Another thing you can do to protect your personal information online is to be careful of the actual websites you visit, particularly if you plan to purchase anything on them. Never enter any personal information on an unsecured site (look for the padlock icon next to the URL). You can also identify a secure site by checking to see if the URL code begins with ‘https’. These sites encrypt your information on the way to their servers, so it’s much more difficult to intercept.
The Dangers of Wi-Fi Hotspots
One of the easiest ways to lose your personal information to an identity thief is by using a public Wi-Fi network. These open networks are unsecured, meaning that anyone can access the internet through the same connection you are using. There are some special precautions you’ll want to take in this case to protect your personal information.
For starters, check your device’s security settings. You need to make sure that you have a security profile set up for public networks, so that you don’t forget to adjust your settings next time you’re using a hotspot. Make sure network discovery is off, which allows other users to see that you’re on the same network, and could present you as a target.
Also, make sure that you device’s security software is up and running, and that you’re not enabling file or printer sharing of any kind. Having these settings off is like leaving the back door wide open to your house – anybody can just barge right into your connection.
Fool Proof Public Network Security
Finally, if you really want to beef up security, and use public Wi-Fi pretty frequently, you’ll want to look into purchasing a VPN service plan. VPNs, or virtual private networks, give their users an encrypted tunnel in the internet, routed to a secure server through a host company.
In addition, VPNs come with an IP address blocker, which prevents anyone from pinning your activity to you. This anonymity adds a whole new level to your security, and even powers through content blocks on networks that censor or restrict access to certain sites and services.
VPNs are very simple to use, and are compatible with every Wi-Fi enabled device. For just a few dollars a month, you can shop online, check bank account balances, and even keep up with your credit score, all over public networks, with zero fear of your information ever being compromised.
The threat of identity theft is very real, and it’s something most of us are likely to have a run in with at some point or another. As the criminals get smarter, we as users have to adapt our habits to be smarter consumers as well. Follow these basic security tips, keep your information private, and add special software like VPNs and credit monitoring services to your routine to prevent identity theft from happening to you.
AUTHOR: Caroline Black From Secure Thoughts