The Information Super Highway, as the Internet used to be called, has become a cyber Audubon with facts and figures conveniently at our fingertips almost 24/7, speeding through phone or fiber optic lines, broadcast over satellite, downloaded over DSL. Most of us do not know how to pluck important numbers and names out of these streaming paths that crisscross over the artificial space of the World Wide Web, but others do and they might use their knowledge for certain gain: namely, your identity. It has become a very precious commodity, sold for money and used for the same with the result being detrimental to you, the rightful owner. So how do you protect this hyper-important piece of self?
As you may imagine, a lot of identity theft happens over the Internet with bogus emails requesting passwords or redirecting you to a site where you enter sensitive information, mostly based on the fact that the emails look so very authoritative and may even threaten the cut-off of a service. It is quite possible that you may not even recall ever signing up for the service but the letter is so authentic that you take the bait. Phishing, pharming, spoofing, spyware, vishing (voice phishing over a cell phone)… all strange names for what boils down to the same thing: identity theft. It is the modern way of stealing someone’s wallet and that is still practiced, too.
How To Avoid Identity Theft
The best policy is common sense. If something does not seem right it probably isn’t. Call your companies to double check. Do not call a number provided in the email or the voice message; use a customer service number gained from another source like the back of your credit card and verify the request for information. Do not let anyone or anything intimidate you into giving this information. You can always hang up or walk away from the computer. It is truly better to be safe than sorry in these cases. Remember that your credit card companies and banks already have your information and they do not need it again.
To protect your account numbers and banking info, opt for paperless invoices. This eliminates the paper trail that can be gained from your mailbox and keep you from having to worry about shredding important documents. Check your accounts online and search for any unauthorized activity or anything you do no remember purchasing. Usually the initial purchases will be small as the thief tests the waters to see if you are paying attention. Many banks will keep an eye out for this kind of activity and may put a hold on your card until you call in and verify it but you cannot count on this alone. Watch your own accounts.
Use only your own computer for making online purchases or checking account information, never use a public computer. While most are set to forget passwords or even dump history and data every hour, it is a huge gamble to put sensitive information in a computer used by people you do not know. The same goes for your phone: do not store credit card numbers or account information on your cell phone or PDA.
Do not keep your social security card in your wallet and instead memorize the number. Do the same for any PIN numbers you have to use. If you do need to carry a PIN number with you, disguise it as a phone number and destroy the paper as soon as you no longer need it. Shredding is a good way to get rid of sheets with personal information on them. Blacking out the information with a marker is not enough protection.
When job hunting on the Internet, do not apply or send a resume unless the address given is verifiable. A thief can gain a lot of data on you using this method. Again, if it looks suspicious avoid it no matter the salary or benefits being offered.
You are allowed one free credit report from all three reporting agencies a year. Use it to monitor for misinformation, the corrections for which will have to submit in writing to each bureau individually. Go to annualcreditreport.com for the only place you can get these reports free. Your credit score range is important to keep high and leads to better interest rates for major purchases.
Be sure to keep your computer secure with firewalls and anti-spyware/malware programs. Run virus scans daily. Never open emails from strangers especially if they have an attachment. No matter what that attachment promises, if you do not recognize the name do not open the mail especially if it is executable attachment (will look like this .exe as the extension, rather than .doc or html for example).
Making a purchase online is as safe as making one in person but never put sensitive information onto an unsecured page. Make sure you see the https:// in the address telling you the page is secure. If in doubt, do not make the purchase; there is almost always a phone order option.
Do not click on pop ups even if they flash and warn of an impending virus. These are designed to fool you into clicking on them and unleashing a virus. Close them out with the bottom task bar and immediately run a virus scan.
Use strong passwords for your financial sites or any site you store any sensitive information. Make them at least six characters long and combine numbers or symbols with the letters. Do not use your personal information as a password and don’t make it something easy to figure out.
Despite everything someone may still get the better of you but even then not all hope is lost. Consider a credit monitoring service and always check on your credit to see changes that have occurred. Watch your card and financial statements closely and often. Keep a cool head and use common sense; if you do find something wrong, call your institutions immediately. They are happy to help you regain what you may have lost.
Read more of Alex Ramsay's articles at the personal finance blog where he discusses ways to improve your finances and increase your income.