Protect Yourself from Identity Theft
Identity theft is a serious problem with significant consequences for victims. Based on public statistics available online, 15 million people in the U.S. are victims of identity theft each year, with financial losses totaling 50 billion dollars. If those statistics provided you a wake-up call, keep reading to learn the steps you can take to protect yourself from identity thieves.
Protecting yourself from identity theft is not difficult, it just requires situational awareness, perseverance to follow safe practices, and taking advantage of some great software services and tools. The steps you should take include what to when you are online, when you are in public, and when you are home. Before we jump into these steps though, let’s talk about identity theft services.
Identity Theft Prevention Companies
With the large number of identity theft victims and the great financial losses, several companies now offer identity theft protection. These services, such as Lifelock, Identity Guard, and Trusted ID, will monitor your credit and look for fraudulent activity attributed to you. They monitor the three main credit bureaus and will alert you if there is suspicious activity against your credit.
These services also offer support if you are a victim of identity theft and some even offer insurance to help cover your expenses from fraudulent purchases, lost wages, and document replacement fees. Of course, these services aren’t free, so shop around if this type of protection interests you.
If you do use one of these services you shouldn’t sit back, relax, and believe you are completely covered and will never be a victim. There are many other things you can do to help keep you from becoming another statistic. With that in mind, let’s talk about protecting yourself online, since a majority of us do a great deal of work (and play) online.
Protecting Yourself Starts at Home
First and foremost, make sure you have anti-virus and anti-spyware software installed on your computer, and keep it updated. This software is your first line of defense against hackers intent on stealing your private data and with it, your identity. There is no shortage of choices for this software, including fee-based services like Symantec and McAfee and free software such as Microsoft Security Essentials.
Since we’re talking about anti-virus and spyware software, don’t forget about your smart phone and tablet. These devices are just as susceptible to security threats and vulnerabilities, and if you are like most people you probably spend a lot of time on your phone and/or tablet. With the explosion of apps for anything and everything, it is important to protect yourself from all the malware apps just waiting for their next victim. A good example of this would be various flashlight apps.
Next, be sure the wireless network in your house is as secure as possible. Wireless routers come with default login and password credentials – change those now if you haven’t done it yet. Use a firewall on your computer and if your wireless router has a firewall, use it too. Lastly, use the highest possible encryption, preferably the WPA2 standard, and protect the key used to connect to your network just like you would a password. Speaking of passwords…
Use Strong Passwords and Protect Them
Your passwords should be complex, memorized, and should differ from account to account. For a complex password, use a combination of lower and uppercase letters, numbers, and special characters. Take a sentence and use only the first letters of the word, replace some letters or words with numbers, add in some special characters and you now have a good password.
Don’t carry those passwords around with you either. Memorize them, and if you have too many passwords to remember, consider a secure password manager such as DashLane or LastPass. These products also help you produce strong passwords.
Another good practice, especially if you do a lot of business or keep sensitive personal information on your computer, is to encrypt your hard drive. In case you don’t know what encryption is, it takes the data on your computer and stores it in an unreadable state using mathematical algorithms or code ciphers. You can encrypt your entire hard, or just specific folders, using products like BitLocker or TrueCrypt for Windows-based platforms or FileVault for the Mac users out there.
Virtual Private Networks – One of the Best Steps You Can Take
A second great way to protect your data while using your computer is the use of a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. Connecting to a VPN provides many benefits and usually no drawbacks, if you choose the right one. A VPN keeps your Internet transactions and browsing secure by encrypting all data you send and receive on a network.
Your choice of VPN should also allow you to choose from many different servers in different locations and countries. This is especially useful if you travel a lot. By choosing a server in a certain location, any server you attempt to connect to, such as Netflix, believes you are in that location. So not only is your location “spoofed”, but you can also access websites and other Internet services that may be blocked for that region or country.
As with most software, there is no shortage of VPN providers available to you. Two very good ones we researched and have written about, are Express VPN and Hide My Ass. Check either of those out if you aren’t using a VPN yet. You can also read our other reviews and recommendations on the Secure Thoughts website.
Don’t Overlook Email or Social Media
Another best practice to help keep you safe involves emails and social media. Whatever you do, resist the urge to click on that link or download a file from someone you don’t know. Those links could be harmless but are most likely some type of malware designed to steal your data.
Same thing with files. You may think you are opening an adorable picture of a kitten, but you are probably double clicking an executable file that will download and install software designed to destroy your system and/or steal all your sensitive information. In case you didn’t know, one of Windows’ default settings is to hide the last extension of a file. So it might look like a .jpg picture file but is really cutekitty.jpg.exe. If you haven’t checked, take a second and look under Tools/Folder Options/View in Windows Explorer and make sure those extensions aren’t hidden.
Don’t Click That Link
If you aren’t sure about a link you receive in email or on social media, don’t risk clicking it. Instead, open your browser and type in the web site address and contact that sites support section to make sure the contact with you is valid. Trend Micro also provides a free URL checker, here, that you can use to see if a URL is safe. Also, as we mentioned earlier, keep that anti-virus and spyware software updated, which will go a long way in protecting you from these types of threats.
When conducting business or making purchases online you also want to make sure the connection is secure. Remember, a VPN like Express VPN or Hide My Ass keeps all your internet traffic secure. You should also make sure you have a secure connection with the specific website you are using. Do this by making sure the address begins with “https” as the “s” indicates a secure connection. You can also look for a closed yellow padlock next to the URL box or in the bottom of your browser window.
If you are a fan of the Firefox browser, they provide a nifty extension called HTTPS Everywhere. This browser extension forces the sites you visit to use a secure https connection and even works with Facebook and Twitter. Since I mentioned those two, this is probably a good time to talk about social media.
Whatever you do, don’t be one of those people that posts everything on Facebook or sends out a tweet every time you do something. Social media is a great asset for identity thieves. They look for people that post their address, birthday, telephone number, and other information. They also look for when people are away on vacation so they can visit their home and steal their valuables, which includes the desktop computer and external hard drive with tax information, transaction receipts, and other sensitive information.
Best Practices for Online Shopping
There are other steps to take when using the internet for business or to make purchases. In fact, after finishing this article go ahead and check another great post that will help you stay safe while shopping online during, which is especially useful this time of year. One of the tips we discuss is how you pay for purchases online. Its recommended you use a credit card, and not a debit card, because of the protections we all get from the federal Credit Billing Act. This legislation allows you to dispute charges and withhold payments during an investigation into fraudulent activity on your account.
A few more tips about your online experience, particularly for your phone and tablet. Don’t make it easy for someone to get into your device – change the default to not allow automatic logins. Instead, use a password, pin, or pattern swipe. You can also install a phone/tablet finder app on your devices. These apps are designed to help you find your device if it is lost or stolen, and some even allow you to wipe the device remotely to ensure none of your data falls into the wrong hands. Two free examples include the iCloud for Mac devices and Android users can use the Android Device Manager.
Steps to Take at Home
Online isn’t the only place you need to protect your identity though, you also need to think about what you do at home and when you are in public. At home, invest in a quality, cross-cut shredder to destroy all your old receipts, credit offers, and expired credit cards. Identity thieves are more than willing to go through your trash, so instead of handing them your bank statement give them thousands of tiny pieces of shredded paper. Also, don’t just throw out those old prescription bottles. Before you do, take the label off and run it through that nice new shredder you just bought.
You should also be careful when using checks. Don’t write your social security number on your check, or any other document for that matter! Also, don’t use your mailbox to mail a check. Instead, go by your local post office and place that letter in one of their drop boxes. Time to reorder checks? Consider having the checks mailed to your bank’s closest branch office and pick them up there. Remember, identity thieves are crafty. After going through your trash they will open your mailbox and take whatever is in it.
Should surfing is yet another favorite practice of identity thieves. They will watch an ATM and look for a victim. The criminals then stand behind the person conducting the transaction and look over their shoulder to get their PIN. The identity thief then finds a way to steal that ATM or credit card, and they now have full access to your accounts.
While on the subject of what to do in public we should discuss one of the prime threats out there, public Wi-Fi hotspots. No, we aren’t going to tell you to never use the hot spot in the hotel where you are staying or in your favorite cafe. We do want to call your attention back to a couple items we discussed earlier though, to keep you safe while connected to public Wi-Fi.
Hopefully you remember the discussion about ensuring you have a secure website connection. If not and since this isn’t a quiz, make sure you have a https connection and look for that closed yellow padlock. Is it coming back to you yet? If so, you also remember that a VPN like Express VPN or Hide My Ass also keeps your Internet connection secure. If you are a heavy user of public Wi-Fi, we highly recommend you use a VPN as this is the best way to keep your data secure while you sip that latte.
Wrapping it Up
This was a lot of information and our goal was to inform you, not scare you. Don’t be overly worried about using your computer or firing up your tablet in a hotel. Instead, take control of your identity and keep it out of the hands of criminals. Follow the steps we outlined and take advantage of the software tools that interest you. After all, it is your identity so it’s in your best interest to protect it and stop identity thieves by making you one of their 15,000,000 victims each year.
If you have any comments or questions, don’t hesitate to drop us a line. We’re here to help and are always interested in different opinions and new products.