Constant internet access has become a staple in the average person's life, thanks to the interconnectivity of our smartphones, wearable smart gadgets, and even smart appliances and smart home devices. While the convenience of being connected all the time frees us from many mundane tasks, the possibility of having your personal information and identity stolen through internet flaws and loose online personal habits is even more possible than before.
Signs Your Identification Might Be in Jeopardy
While you may hear the horror stories on the news of massive financial ruin or someone's identity being used to commit crimes, most identity theft occurs a little bit at a time and may be hard to notice if the thief is crafty. While an identity theft protection service can monitor your credit and personal information, alerting you when changes happen, the majority of subscribers to those services join after an incident has happened. Fortunately, there are signs you can look out for to protect your identity before it's too late:
- Your bank account shows unexpected withdrawals or deposits.
By monitoring your bank accounts and matching your receipts and payments, you can notice when things are out of order. No matter how small the transaction, any activity on your account that you don't remember carrying out is a red flag.
- There are unfamiliar accounts or charges on your credit report.
When you order a credit report, it shows you all the accounts associated with your Social Security number. Be aware of all the accounts you currently possess so you can identify any accounts that are out of place or unknown.
- Your email or online passwords have changed without your knowledge.
If you try to log on to your regular email account or a website you frequently use and it doesn't allow you to change or recover your password, it's likely that you've been compromised. Contact your email or website service immediately.
- Your regular bills stop being delivered.
Often when your identity is stolen, the thief changes your mailing address for credit card and other bills to delay your suspicions. Check with the corresponding company if your statements don't arrive on time.
- Debt collectors call about debts you didn't accrue.
This happens when the identity thief spends money on your accounts or links your information to a falsified credit card. Don't be afraid to ask the collectors for particulars regarding the debt and take action to find out what they are claiming you owe. Credit reports can help you discover this information as well.
- A company you have financial or disclosed-information dealings with notifies you of a data breach.
There has been an increase in major companies being hacked and data potentially stolen over the past decade. It is not uncommon for companies to offer a complimentary subscription for a year or so after a data breach as a precaution, even if data has not been stolen. If you receive a notification that one of these companies has been the victim of a data breach, it is a good indication that you should take steps to protect yourself.
- Ways to Prevent ID Theft
Locking yourself away and severing all contact with the outside world isn't a healthy or viable way to avoid having your identity stolen, but being smart about what you share online and what services you use is just the start of preventing identity theft. Here are some other ways to protect yourself and your personal information while still enjoying the benefits of a connected life:
- Never use the same password for all your accounts.
Create strong passwords for each of your accounts. If you use the same password or only minor variations, it makes it easier for a thief to gain access to every account you have and wreak havoc.
- Shred documents that show sensitive information.
Identity thieves don't only try to gain information digitally; intercepting mail or digging through garbage are age-old techniques that many still employ. By shredding sensitive documents with your account numbers and other information that could be used to access your identity, you are protecting yourself from these traditional attacks.
- Protect your information on social media sites.
While it is great to share with your friends and family online, seriously consider tightening up your posting habits. Protect your identity by restricting specific information like your age, phone number and address.
- Don't reply to unsolicited requests for your sensitive personal information over the phone, online or through the mail.
You should never give out your Social Security number, birthday, address or age to anyone who calls, mails or emails you claiming to be from a government agency, bank or charity. Remember, you are not obligated to give any information you don't feel comfortable giving. To not seem rude is never a good reason to disclose your personal information.
- Monitor your medical accounts.
Victims' accounts of their valid medical claims being denied due to identity theft are on the rise as well. While it is more challenging to monitor medical records than your other information, you can request that your health insurance provider disclose a record of benefits that have been paid in your name. Another way to prevent medical identity theft is to shred your outdated medical records and prescription labels.
- Request a credit report.
With the recent influx of commercials encouraging you to check your credit score, it may seem like it would be easy to discover any changes to your credit. Unfortunately, if you don't know what to look for, you might just miss the signs of identity theft. The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires national credit reporting companies to provide a free credit report once every 12 months. If you stagger these out, you can request a copy from Equifax, TransUnion or Experian each year with no charge. On your credit report, you should see if there are any new accounts with unknown lender names or unusual balances. You should also check for any abnormal payment history.
- Monitor your dependents' financial and personal information accounts.
Sometimes thieves target young children, as they and their guardians do not pay attention to their personal information until they get older, only to find that the child's Social Security number has been wrongfully used for years. Follow the same prevention tips to protect your children's futures as you would yours.
- Be aware, not paranoid.
While the thought of having your identity stolen can be frightening, don't let it paralyze you with fear. By taking steps to prevent your identity from being used maliciously, you are preparing the best defense possible. Live your life, but with the awareness that protecting your identity isn't something you do just once.
How to Report Cybercrime
If you or someone you know falls victim to identity theft, you can report the crime to a government agency, which will vary depending on the type of cybercrime. The United States Department of Justice website has a list that pairs types of cybercrimes with the appropriate agency. This can help you determine the right agency to contact, enhancing your possibilities of receiving help and alerting authorities to the criminal activity.
Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission has a website that can guide you through the beginning steps of recovering from a stolen identity. This can be a drawn-out process, but if you are actively monitoring your personal information and accounts, either with an identity theft protection service or through your own efforts, you could shorten the time it takes to recover considerably.
Identity theft is no laughing matter, and the first step to protecting yourself is to take charge of your online and offline habits. Be smart with your personal information, vary your passwords, and be choosy with the people you share information with online and off. Most of all, take charge of your online identity and protect yourself and your personal data by being proactive today.