The number of victims of identity theft hit a record high in 2017. A whopping 16.7 million individuals were affected by identity theft in 2017, according to Javelin Strategy & Research. The risk of becoming a victim of identity theft gets worse as social security numbers are being compromised more than credit card numbers.
While companies won’t hold you liable for fraudulent debts racked up in your name, as a victim of identity theft, you’d have to spend time and money fighting the theft. That includes making phone calls, gathering the necessary documents, spending money to mail documentation, and possibly even missing work to clear up the theft. Not only that, until you clear up identity theft, you could have a difficult time getting your legitimate credit applications approved.
Identity thieves are becoming more sophisticated every year. They’re increasingly compromising identities in ways you may not recognize right away, like making purchases on a cell phone account or taking over existing subscription services. This means consumers need to also be more vigilant about protecting their identity. What you did to keep your identity safe in previous years might not be enough to keep your identity safe today. Fortunately, the best free identity theft protection is available to you right now. Here are some tips to protect against identity theft:
Protect your personal information.
Thieves commit identity theft when they get their hands on your personal information. Your social security number is the most valuable piece of information for an identity thief. Guard this nine-digit number as best as you can. Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet or write your Social Security number on checks or other unsecured documents. Before giving out your Social Security number, make sure the business has an actual need for the information. Avoid giving out any personal information in unsolicited phone calls or emails.
Practice good password safety.
Many people create password they can easily remember, but these are often also the easiest to guess. Use strong passwords that include upper and lowercase letters and alphanumeric characters. Avoid using words that can be found in the dictionary in your password. The longer and more unique your password is, the harder it will be for hackers to guess or use software to crack your password.
Make sure your passwords are unique across different accounts. Sure, it’s hard to keep up with several different passwords, but it’s safer to use a different password on each website you need to log into. Otherwise, a thief only needs to steal one of your passwords to access all your accounts. Change your passwords periodically throughout the year to protect yourself from identity theft.
Password safety also applies to electronic devices you use to make financial transactions. Make sure you’ve secured your laptop, smartphone, tablet or any other devices you use to store information or make transactions. Add a strong password or PIN to your devices.
Avoid public Wi-Fi.
You may be excited to access free public Wi-Fi in places where you don’t have great service or to avoid using up your data plan, but your information is at risk anytime you use public Wi-Fi. Hackers can intercept every piece of information sent from your device via public Wi-Fi – that includes your usernames, passwords, account numbers, and credit card information.
Hackers might also trick you into using their own Wi-Fi signal from a laptop or hotspot by labeling it with the name of a nearby business. So, while you think you’re logging into the coffee shop’s Wi-Fi, you’re actually using a hacker’s Wi-Fi and they’re capturing all the information sent from your device. Hackers might even secretly install malware onto your device by disguising it as a software update.
Use two-factor authentication.
Two-factor authentication adds another step to login process. With two-factor authentication enabled, your bank or financial institution will ask to verify your identity via text message or email to complete your log in. After entering your password on the website, you’ll receive a code to the phone number or email address on your account. Entering this code verifies that you’re the one trying to log on to your account. You can choose to do this each time you log in or only when you log on with a new device. While the extra step may be a little time consuming, it ensures thieves can’t log on to your account and gives you a leg up in preventing identity theft.
Watch out for phishing scams.
While many identity thieves are getting smarter about gaining access to your passwords and other personal information, the old methods haven’t gone away. Be on guard for phishing scams, where thieves pose as legitimate businesses and attempt to get personal or financial information from you. With email phishing scams, for example, thieves send fake emails of your account being compromised and urge you to log on to your account via a link in their email. Only, the link takes you to a website created to capture your login details. Watch out for phishing attempts through email, phone calls, text messages, even websites you visit. Keep all your personal and financial documents in a safe place.
Place a security freeze on your credit reports.
A security freeze locks your credit report, preventing businesses from accessing your credit report. Without the ability to check your credit report, most businesses will not approve new applications, which includes applications from thieves attempting to steal your identity. When you’re ready to apply for something that requires a credit check, you can temporarily lift the freeze with a password or PIN that you set.
It can cost up to $15 to add, remove, or temporarily lift a security freeze. The exact fee depends on your state’s law and whether you’ve been a victim of identity theft. Identity theft victims are typically able to apply a security freeze at no cost as long as they can provide proof.
Visit each bureau’s website separately to add a security freeze to your credit report.
Watch for early signs of identity theft.
Always be on guard for the possibility of identity theft. You can make use of free credit reviews like Credit Karma or Credit Sesame to monitor changes to your credit report. By definition one of the first signs that someone is attempting to steal your identity is the presence of unfamiliar inquiries on your credit report. These inquiries could mean that someone has applied for credit in your name.
If you suspect your information has been compromised, you can contact one of the credit bureaus to add a fraud alert to your credit report. The fraud alert will be added to all three of your credit reports and warn businesses to verify your identity before opening any accounts in your name.
It’s impossible to completely protect yourself from identity theft. Hackers are constantly working to steal personal information from companies you do business with. Still, doing your part by adopting habits that keep your personal information safe will prevent your identity from being stolen.