As more and more Americans rely on online banking, online shopping and online access to pretty much everything else, the odds that they will become victims of identity theft at some point are rising every day. While it’s impossible to be 100% protected from identity theft, there are important steps that you can take as preventative measures, as well as knowing what to do if the worst happens and you find that your identity has been stolen.
How can people protect themselves from becoming victims? Many of the preventative steps are common sense, but things that not many of us actively do. One of the first steps is not making it easy for thieves by using the same simple password like “password,” or “123456.” Passwords should not be just a word or even a date. Use special characters, upper and lower case letters and numbers. Also, you shouldn’t use the same password for every online account. If a thief can crack the one password you use for everything, he then has the keys to the castle.
Another key step in protecting yourself is limiting the amount of information that you share on social networking sites. An overzealous sharer might reveal enough personal information that a thief could discover answers to security questions, or even your mother’s maiden name, which is often used when establishing credit or verifying your identity. Being careful about what and how much you share, as well as setting your privacy settings at the highest level, is an easy step you can take to protect yourself and your personal information.
Securing your computer, tablet and phone is another important step. Keeping your computer free of viruses by running anti-virus software is critical. If your computer is infected with a virus or malware, thieves can gain access to information stored on your computer, or in some cases they can log the keystrokes you use, granting them easy access to your usernames and passwords as you enter them. Another way to secure your devices is to avoid using public wi-fi. Thieves can easily intercept data on unsecure wi-fi networks. Use your cellular data, or wait until you are on your home network to login to sensitive online accounts. Also, make sure that you secure your home wi-fi network with a password to make it harder for thieves to access your network and your data.
One of the most important preventative steps people can take is actively monitoring their bank accounts, credit cards and credit reports. You don’t have to use one of the services that provide this monitoring, like ID Watchdog, Identity Force, or LifeLock. However, these services offer users the peace of mind knowing that they don’t constantly need to be checking things. If you want to take the do-it-yourself approach, actively monitoring your bank accounts and credit card accounts to keep an eye out for unusual activity is important, as is checking your credit reports on a regular basis. Consumers can access their credit reports, free of charge, every 12 months by going to the website www.annualcreditreport.com . Since there are three credit reporting bureaus, consumers can effectively get a free look at their credit report every four months by requesting from the different bureaus.
Even if you’ve taken all the preventative measures described above and perhaps even more, there is still a chance that your identity can be stolen. If that happens, it’s important to know what to do next. The first step is placing a fraud alert on your credit report by contacting one of the credit reporting bureaus. The bureau that you contact will then share this with the other two reporting bureaus. This will create hurdles to a thief trying to access credit in your name. You can also consider requesting a credit freeze, which will prevent creditors from being able to access your credit report and issuing credit in your name. Requesting a current copy of your credit report is also important to determine if any fraudulent accounts have already been created. You should also change all your online passwords to prevent continued theft. Creating an Identity Theft report on the FTC’s website, www.identitytheft.gov , is also important. The website will allow you to enter information and create an “Identity Theft Affidavit” along with a personal recovery plan. You should then file a police report using the Identity Theft Affidavit. Keeping copies of the Identity Theft Affidavit along with the police report that you file can be used as an Identity Theft Report and given to credit reporting companies, debt collectors and any businesses that opened accounts in your name. There is a great resource offered by the FTC called Taking Charge, which is a handbook of sorts for navigating through an identity theft incident.
Restoring or repairing your credit after a theft can be a very time consuming and labor intensive process. For those not wanting to take the do-it-yourself approach, most of the credit monitoring companies offer some sort of assistance in restoring credit in the event of theft. In addition, check with your homeowner’s insurance company to determine if you have ID Theft coverage, or if coverage can be added. Oftentimes, this coverage pays for the cost of legal fees or professional services to handle much of the work on your behalf.
Identity theft is a topic that more and more of us are becoming familiar with. A September 2016 Bankrate.com survey estimated that as many as 41 million Americans have had their identity stolen and another 49 million know someone who has been affected by identity theft. Utilizing some of these simple preventative steps can lower the likelihood that you become a victim, but it’s no guarantee it won’t happen. It’s important to know what steps to take if you do become a victim in order to restore your credit, your security and your name.
For additional information on identity theft, contact Budros, Ruhlin & Roe.