All of us are aware of how rampant identity theft is. We might even think we are doing everything possible to prevent it. How can you know if your personal information has been taken? Unfortunately, you can probably assume that it was. Cyberattacks happen all the time. Because protecting all types of information about yourself online can safeguard your identity, your assets and your credit score, we’re sharing a few tips you may not have considered.
Your personal information, including your email address, phone number, Social Security number and browsing history, is worth a lot of money to both legitimate businesses and criminals. Companies want to know as much about you as possible so they can sell you more products and services. Criminals can use your information to steal from you in a number of ways. The more you know about how they can do this, the more you can do to protect your valuable personal information.
Follow Password Tips
Use strong, creative passwords, especially on sites that store sensitive information. Try to be unpredictable. Don’t use your name, birthdate or common words. The longer your password, the harder it is to hack. Use at least 10 characters. One technique is to think of a memorable phrase and use the first letter of each word as your password. Substitute numbers for some words or letters. For example, “I want to go to the Grand Canyon with you!” could become 1W2G2tGcwU!. Don’t use the same password for multiple sites, and never use your Social Security number as a username or password.
Don’t share passwords on the phone, in texts or by email. Legitimate companies will not send you messages asking for your password. If you get one, it’s probably a scam. Keep your passwords in a secure place, out of plain sight.
Lie when setting up password security questions. “What is your mother’s maiden name?” or “In what city were you born?” are common questions websites may ask you to answer to supposedly keep your account safe. In reality, true answers can easily be found by doing a little Internet research. Keep your “lies” with your password so you won’t forget them.
Use a password manager like 1Password or LastPass. These sites create a unique password for each website you visit and store them in a database protected by a master password that you create. Password managers reduce the risk of reused passwords or those that are easy to decode. A password manager can eliminate the dilemma of not being able to create or remember so many unique passwords.
Use two-factor authentication. Then, when you log into a site, you will also need to enter a special code that the site texts to your phone. Some services require it each time you log in, others just when you’re using a new device or web browser. Some people think two-factor authentication is too time consuming, but if a site offers this additional security feature, it could be wise to enable it.
Secure Your Social Security Number
Think twice about sharing your social security number with anyone, unless it’s your bank, a credit bureau, a company that wants to do a background check on you or some other entity that has to report to the IRS. If someone gets their hands on it and has information such your birth date and address they can steal your identity and take out credit cards and pile up other debt in your name.
If asked for your Social Security Number, ask if you can use a different kind of identification. If they say “No,” ask other questions, like:
- why they need it
- how it will be used
- how they will protect it
- what happens if you don’t share the number
Sometimes a business will not provide you with a service or benefit if you don’t provide your number. They may need your SSN so they can check your credit when you apply for a loan, rent an apartment, or sign up for utility service. Your employer and financial institutions have to have your SSN for wage and tax reporting purposes.
Be selective about sharing even the last 4 digits of your Social Security number. The last four are often used by banks and other institutions to reset your password for access to your account. If someone has the last four digits and your birth place, it’s a lot easier to guess the entire number. That’s because the first three are determined by where you, or your parents, applied for your SSN. And the second set of two are the group number, which is assigned to all numbers given out at a certain time in your geographic area. So a determined identity thief with some computing power could hack it given time.
- Don’t give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or on the Internet unless you initiated the contact and know who you’re dealing with.
- Use encryption software that scrambles information you send. A “lock” icon on the status bar of your browser means your information will be safe when it’s transmitted.
- Only give personal information over secure websites. Look for “https” at the beginning of the web address (the “s” is for secure).
- Never post your full name, Social Security number, address, phone number, or account numbers on publicly accessible sites. Don’t fill out your social media profile.
- Make sure only friends can see what you’re doing on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Go to Settings and ensure you’re protecting your privacy as much as you can. Think before you post!
- Install anti-virus software, anti-spyware software, and a firewall. Set your preference to update these protections often. Install security patches for your operating system and other programs.
- Don’t open files, click on links, or download programs sent by strangers. Doing that could expose your system to a computer virus or spyware that captures passwords or other information.
- When using a public wireless network, ensure your information will be protected. Only use a secure wireless network so that all the information you send is protected.
- Don’t use an automatic login that saves your user name and password, and always log off when you’re finished. If your laptop is stolen, it will be harder for a thief to get at personal information.
- Enable private browsing if you don’t want anyone with physical access to your computer to see where you’re hanging out online. It deletes cookies, temporary internet files and browsing history.
- Back up important files and your tax returns onto a removable disc or a back-up drive, and store it in a safe place. If your computer is compromised, you’ll still have access to your files.
Safely Dispose of Personal Information
Before you dispose of a computer, get rid of all the personal information stored on it. Use a wipe utility program to overwrite the entire hard drive. Before you dispose of a mobile device, check your owner’s manual, the service provider’s website, or the device manufacturer’s website for information on how to delete information permanently, and how to save or transfer information to a new device. Remove the memory or subscriber identity module (SIM) card from a mobile device. Remove the phone book, lists of calls, voicemails, messages sent and received, organizer folders, web search history, and photos.