Extra Credit: Protect Yourself From Identity Theft

Well, gang, it’s that time of year again.  Tis the season for online shopping and ordering gifts for everyone in your life—from your mother-in-law to your cousin’s boyfriend’s kid to your daughter’s Taekwondo teacher and that very nice lady who shares a cubicle with your niece. Time’s a-ticking, guys!  Got to get everything on that list checked off as quickly as possible (and bake all the cookies, clean all the things, decorate all the rooms, feed the cat, and keep the kids from killing each other over the existence of Santa Claus).  But what about your credit cards?

Ways to Protect Yourself From ID Theft

In the festive swirl of the holiday season, it’s very easy to forget about the risks we take when online shopping.  Chances are, the stores we order from are prepared and well-equipped to deal with potential hacks. But then again, nobody’s perfect. Wouldn’t you feel better that you did your very best to protect yourself against the possibility of identity theft, instead of leaving it to the big box stores?

Of course, you could always pay for everything in Bitcoin. But who has the time and resources for that?

Of course you would! If we’ve learned anything here, it’s that we have to take responsibility for our own security!  But how can we go about it?  How can we protect ourselves from identity theft while we’re buying our Christmas gifts online?

Use Unique Passwords for Every Website

Always, always keep those passwords complicated. Don’t make it easy for them to walk right on into your digital house.

Your passwords are more important than you may realize.  A weak or easily cracked password is a hacker’s dream—if your password happens to be “password” or “qwerty” or “abc123,” change it.  NOW. Before you read another sentence of this post. 

It’s even worse if you use the same password everywhere, for all of your accounts.  Once the attacker knows the password for one website, they can get into everything, including your bank accounts.  It’s almost as if you’ve left the front door to your internet unlocked for them to waltz right in and take whatever they want.

To avoid this, make sure you use strong passwords.  They should be long (as in at least 10 characters or longer), use a combination of upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols, and have nothing to do with your personal information.  (Don’t use combinations of your name, birthdate, kids’ or pets’ names). I know it’s easier said than done. Thankfully, there are tools out there you can use to make it easier on yourself.  Password managers and multi-factor authentication are considered best practices for password management (and make it harder for attackers to unlock your internet’s front door).

This last part may not really need to be said, but we’ll say it here, just in case:  Put Passwords On Your Mobile Devices.  You know why.

Watch Out For Phishing Websites

We have talked about phishing attacks a couple of times before.  However, the reason this keeps coming up is because it works.  There’s always someone out there who falls for the phishing scam and clicks that sketchy e-mail link because it looks just legitimate enough to possibly be real.

There are phishing websites, too.  They look just real enough to try to fool you—asking for a username and password.  But if your bank website or that online store starts asking for additional information, you may want to be wary.  If they’re asking for info like your

  • Social security number
  • Credit card number
  • Bank account number
  • Driver’s license number
  • Health insurance information

Be afraid.  Be very afraid.  If you ever have questions about whether the website that you’ve been directed to is legitimate, go to the organization’s main webpage, or call their customer service number to ask (and always independently verify the phone number).

Keep Your Anti-Virus Protection And Devices Up To Date

The best way to protect yourself against malware is to make sure that you have anti-virus and anti-malware software running and up to date. Also, install updates from your computer or device’s manufacturer.  Keep everything patched and updated.  Enough said.

Stick To Websites You Know And Trust

If you’re not sure about a company’s reputation, do a little homework.  Maybe they appear to have cool products that your sister-in-law will love, but do they have crummy reviews from other users?  Are they rated well with the Better Business Bureau

You can find almost everything on the internet these days.  And I mean everything.  But that doesn’t mean that every website with a product to sell is the best at protecting your information.

Limit The Info On Social Media

The more information you give out on your social media, the more information you give potential attackers to try to crack your codes.  If you’re checking into your bank on Facebook or FourSquare, you are giving the world information that they don’t need to know.  If complete strangers can see your full name, date of birth, and family members’ names on your social media accounts, you really should consider limiting the information you’re sharing.

Secure Your Wireless Network

Password protect it and LOCK IT DOWN.

If you leave your home wireless network unencrypted and password-free, you are asking for trouble. Not only can your broke downstairs neighbor bum off your internet without paying for it, but potential attackers can also view your website usage without your even knowing about it.  They can see what websites you visit and for how long, and build a pretty detailed profile of you and other users on your network for use in social engineering or other attacks.  Even if some information is encrypted, many websites do not encrypt login information.  An easy way to protect yourself is to add a password to your wireless network.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)

We all love our Starbucks–our venti salted caramel cappafrappasuperfragilisticexpialiccinos.  But if you’re going there for the free Wi-Fi (or any free Wi-Fi, for that matter–they even have it at McDonald’s now), you want to be careful about connecting to that network.  Even though they may have a password on it, that doesn’t necessarily make it safe.  To help protect you from “man in the middle” attacks and other potential hazards, you may want to consider using a personal VPN (“virtual private network”).  VPNs create a secure tunnel between your device and the internet, basically protecting your privacy.  So if you’re shopping Amazon while sipping designer coffee, your VPN keeps a tight, heavy lid on your network activity.

Hard Copy Credit

These last few are not so much about online safety, but credit safety in general.  In my current day job I talk to a lot of people about their credit in the context of specific transactions, and it’s amazing how open some are with their personal information.  So, even if you’re shopping at a brick and mortar store, these are for you:

Monitor Your Credit Report

You should review your credit score at least once a year to see if there are any new credit cards, loans, or other transactions on your report that you are not aware of.  If anything appears squirrely, take immediate action to have these questionable transactions terminated and investigated. 

You have the right to three free credit reports per year–one from each of the three credit bureaus (Experian, Transunion, and Equifax).  You can either request a credit report online through their secure website, call the toll-free number, or request by snail mail.  It is important to note that after you request a credit report from one bureau, you will have to wait a year before you can get it free again from the same bureau. If you don’t mind paying for a report, though, you can get one at anytime.

Freeze Your Credit

If you’re not planning on making any large purchases in the near future (such as a house or a car), you may want to consider placing a freeze on your credit.  When you freeze or lock your credit, no new credit can be issued without extra information and authorization.  Many states have laws that give you the right to a free credit freeze. 

Watch Your Credit Card Statements

In this day and age, does anyone really pay for anything in cash?

This one seems like a no-brainer, but keep track of your purchases and compare against your credit card statement.  If you see something that looks out of place, bring it to the attention of your credit card company immediately.  The sooner you clamp down on it, the sooner you cut off the attacker’s source of funds. 

Shredder Is Not Just A Villain In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Use a document shredder! It may sound paranoid, but you never know if someone could fish out old credit card or bank statements from your trash. Even junk mail advertising “pre-approved” offers of credit can be problematic, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.  Shred that sh*t.

Of course, this list is not comprehensive, nor is it intended to be an in-depth analysis of anyone’s credit.  Whenever you are trying to protect your credit, whether online or on paper, you need to do your own research to make sure that you are doing what is best for you, your family, and your finances.

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