Identity theft occurs when an unauthorized individual wrongfully obtains personal information and uses it to commit theft or fraud. Approximately 7% of all U.S. residents age 16 or older were victims of one or more incidents of identity theft in 2012. Nowadays, the threat of identity theft is more pervasive and the tactics are continually increasing in sophistication.
DOs: Protecting Oneself
To reduce the risk of becoming a victim of identity theft, there are a number of simple actions that everyone can take:
1. Store Your Personal Information in a Safe Place
Personal information should be stored in a safe place, both at home and at work. It should not be left in the open, unattended.
2. Check Your Credit Reports
In 2012, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) reported that the majority of identity theft incidents (85%) involved the fraudulent use of existing account information, such as credit card or bank account information.
Checking credit is the easiest way to find out if someone is abusing your financial name for personal benefit. The credit card statement should be reviewed frequently (preferably quarterly, annually at a minimum) for mistakes, such as debit of the incorrect amounts or unfamiliar changes.
3. Be Wise with Passwords
Strong, hard to crack passwords are essential. Capital letters, numbers and special characters should be used for passwords, and changed at regular intervals. Obvious passwords, such as date of birth or simply ‘password’, should never be chosen. Password best practices also involve different passwords for different accounts, so that if someone hacks the password for one credit card, they will not be able to access brokerage or email accounts.
4. Destroy Old or Unnecessary Data
The majority of consumers do not pay attention to the multitude of personal information that they discard. Old or unnecessary documents should be shredded, including private receipts, junk mail, financial statements, billing statements and expired credit cards, before throwing them away. Any computer data storage, such as hard drives, should also be wiped prior to selling it or giving it away.
5. Watch Out for Shoulder Surfing
“Shoulder surfing” occurs when an unauthorized person uses direct observation techniques to obtain personal information. Shoulder surfing is most effective in crowded areas, where it can be much less obvious, as it is fairly easy to stand beside someone and watch as they enter a PIN number at an ATM, fill out a form, or other similar activities. The threat of shoulder surfing has increased due to the prevalence of mobile phones equipped with cameras and video recorders. To prevent shoulder surfing, one should shield paperwork or the keypad from view by using his or her body or cupping their free hand.
6. Defend Your Computer
Computers should be protected from unauthorized access with the latest software. An updated Web browser ensures that one is taking advantage of its current safety features. Security software, such as firewalls, anti-spyware software and virus-detection software, should also be installed and kept up-to-date as a safety measure against online intrusions.
7. Secure Your Network
Home wireless networks should be secured, as a hacker may gain access to anything done over an unsecured network within minutes. Using a password will not affect the way the wireless network is used, but will prevent intruders from getting ahold of your information.
8. Recognize Phishing Emails
Be cautious of “spam” or junk email in your inbox as they generally are messages from phishers, and may contain viruses (Trojan horses) that can infiltrate the computer and forward information to cyber criminals. Since identity information in messages can be easily spoofed, one should also be cautious when the message appears to come from a safe sender. If an offer appears “too good to be true”, it probably is. One should be wary of email attachments and links in both email and instant messages.
9. Care when Buying Online
One should avoid entering credit card number online unless it is encrypted in a secure website. Probably the best way to ensure that information does not get intercepted is by using only trusted, well-known online retailers, or smaller sites that use reputable payment processors such as PayPal. Regardless of the site, to verify that the page is safe, one should always look for the padlock icon in the browser window frame, and the web address should begin with https:// (where the ‘s’ stands for ‘secure’).
Safeguarding personal, confidential data can prevent individuals from falling victim to identity theft. By taking simple but necessary precautions, one can be safe both offline and online. Stay tuned for Part 2 where we will further discuss preventative measures to avoid identity theft and reactive strategies for victims.
Author: Hazel Farrugia
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