It’s a glorious Saturday morning. You plan to sleep until 2 p.m. but instead, you’re awakened by a call from your credit card company. Still drunk with sleep, you’re vaguely aware that the guy on the line seems pretty frantic. Did you miss last month’s payment? Nah. You’re pretty sure you’re in the clear. So naturally, you begin to wonder what the fuss is all about.
And that’s when he says those three awful words…“World of Warcraft.” Your confusion doesn’t last much longer. You know you haven’t been to Azeroth in ages and certainly not for $300. Shocked, you sink slowly back into bed as you come to the horrifying realization that you’re the latest victim of identity theft.
But What Exactly is Identity Theft?
Identity theft is a crime in which an unauthorized party obtains personal or financial information such as your name, address, driver’s license, social security number (SSN), credit card and/or bank statements to assume your identity and make transactions or purchases.
How does it happen? One of the primary ways is via stolen personal items. A wallet that is lost or swiped may contain your credit cards, driver’s license, or SSN. In the hands of a thief, these items may be used to make purchases, obtain housing, apply for loans, or open new lines of credit. Personal devices such as your cell phone, laptop, or tablet may also be targeted. With just one of these devices, not only may an identity thief gain access to your personal information, but also to important email and financial accounts.
Identity Theft and the Internet
Another tool that may be used to steal your identity is the internet. This means you should never access your financial accounts on public WiFi networks or make purchases on dodgy websites. If buying a pair of Jordans online for half-price seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Here’s something else to think about: is your phone password or PIN the date of your anniversary? Is it perhaps your spouse’s or child’s birthday? If it is, try aiming for something that’s a bit harder to guess. And don’t you dare use the same password for all your accounts!
Identity thieves are usually phishers or doxers. Phishing occurs when a criminal poses as a legitimate entity to request personal information. This normally happens via email, instant messaging, or a fake website. After your data has been stolen, doxing may occur—the thieves threaten to release your private information if you don’t comply with their demands.
Your data may even be compromised online through absolutely no fault of your own. For example, if a company you trust is breached by hackers, they may be able to access and use your personal info. In company-wide security breaches, millions of people may be affected. Just ask the 4.8 million job seekers on America’s JobLink who may have had their accounts compromised in 2017.
Yeah, it’s a scary world out there. In 2017 alone, approximately 16.7 million Americans experienced identity theft. The amount of money stolen was just shy of $17 billion. Yes, I said seventeen billion…with a B.
Nevertheless, there are a few steps you can take to help keep yourself safe.
- Use Multiple Methods of Authentication
Got an iPhone X? Or for the iOS haters, a Galaxy S9? For added security, consider using fingerprint or facial recognition software instead of just a PIN or password. These types of software may be used to lock your phone, social media accounts, and banking apps. They may also be enabled for key actions such as changing your password, making a purchase, or transferring funds.
Ensure your PINs and passwords are strong and not easy to guess.
- Be Cautious and Observant
Always make it your prerogative to check who’s watching you or trying to peer over your shoulder when you’re at the ATM. The same rules apply when you’re using a computer at work, school, or in public. If you’re discussing confidential matters on the phone, keep an eye out for anyone who may be listening. Even the giggling mom who seems completely bewitched by her adorable baby is a potential suspect.
Know where your wallet and devices are at all times. If you use your credit card at a store, always double check that it’s back in its rightful place before leaving the establishment. Believe me, your credit card is the last thing you want to lose.
While physical security is good, being safe digitally is equally important. Only connect your devices to secure private networks and only purchase items from established companies through legitimate websites. Pay special attention to URLs (it’s eBay, not eBuy). Never share your personal information on social media. Encrypt emails and messages with sensitive information. Use an established browser that is up to date. And don’t forget to double-check your browser extensions.
(P.S: If Chrome tells you an extension may be eavesdropping on you, take it seriously!)
- Check Your Financial Statements
You need to pick up on unusual activity as soon as possible. This means checking your credit card and bank statements each month to ensure your transactions are in order. You also need to do a thorough analysis of your annual credit report. A few reputable websites like Credit Karma let you do it for free.
- Destroy Personal Files You Don’t Need
If you don’t want your information to be stolen, you can destroy physical copies you don’t need. Some people shred financial documents or medical prescriptions before throwing them out. Burning is an even better idea. Be sure to shatter DVDs and CDs you’re ready to discard and obtain special software to wipe the hard drive of any device you intend to trade or sell. Simply deleting the data or formatting the drive is NOT enough.
- Safeguard Your Social Security Number
Your SSN is arguably the most important type of ID issued by the government. Equipped with this number (or even just the last 4 digits), your name, and address, a seasoned criminal can steal your identity.
What should you do? Keep your social security card in a secure place. A locked safe or safety deposit box is recommended.
What shouldn’t you do? Keep your social security card in your wallet where it can easily be stolen, or carelessly provide your SSN to anyone who asks. Never share your SSN (or any other sensitive information) to solicitors over the telephone or via email. Chances are you’re the target for the next phishing scam.
- Got Mail? Protect It
Check your physical mailbox regularly. You know those financial documents we’ve repeatedly mentioned in this article? Yes, those. Retrieve them punctually. You may even obtain a postal service to preview your mail and manage your packages. If you’re leaving town for a while, be sure to hold your mail.
Also, never EVER leave paid bills in the mail. If you’re not fond of paying bills online, pay them at the post office or in store. Yeah, it can be a hassle, but better safe than sorry, right?
If you ever wake up on a glorious Saturday morning and find out you’ve become a victim of identity theft, here’s what you need to do:
- Notify your bank and/or credit card company of your experience and put a hold on the account that has been tampered with.
- File a police report.
- Inform the fraud department of each of the three national consumer credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion).
Let’s be honest. No security is 100% foolproof. Even so, you can take practical steps to safeguard your identity. Never give out your personal info over the phone, cash checks for other people, or wire money to individuals you don’t know.
If you’re particularly paranoid about your identity being stolen, you may consider locking or freezing your credit. And if you ever receive an email from a mysterious Nigerian prince who claims he desperately needs YOUR financial assistance, kindly let him know that you’ve sent his request to the police and they’ll be more than happy to help.