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Feb 16, 201511:52 AMOpen Mic

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How to protect yourself against identify theft

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Recent electronic security breaches at Sony Pictures and large retailers such as Home Depot and Target demonstrate the vulnerability of our personal data. Tech-savvy criminals are committing identity theft at record-breaking rates.

Specifically, online fraud has tripled in the last year. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that 9 million Americans suffer identity theft annually. Most people associate identify theft with credit card fraud.

However, a more nefarious form of identity fraud involves a thief using personal information to open bank accounts or take loans — thereby wreaking havoc on your credit and potentially causing personal financial losses.

Here are some steps to take to protect your personal information and financial security.

Rules of online engagement

As many of us forgo crowded malls in favor of shopping from our computers and mobile devices, vigilance online is increasingly important. When engaging in online shopping, passwords and PIN numbers should vary by account.

Also, avoid using personal information such as birth dates, names of family members, names of pets, or overly simplistic number arrangements. Dave DeWalt, CEO of the cybersecuity company FireEye, estimates that 80% of identity theft originates with stolen and weak passwords, with the most common being 123456. Strong passwords will include an assortment of numbers and letters, both lower and upper case, and should include special characters.

Be mindful of suspicious emails with embedded links. Such communications are often infected with viruses, malware, or spyware, which can be used to extract personal information. A good rule of thumb is not to open emails, or click any links, from an email that you do not recognize. A comprehensive virus protection and firewall package helps to combat most threats.

Thieves may also use bogus ads or websites to lure victims. If you are not familiar with a company, be sure to do some research before you execute any sort of online financial transaction. You should even avoid storing your personal information on the sites of trusted online vendors. If a company’s network is hacked, your information may be compromised.

Bank smart

Be aware of potential threats when conducting banking or other financial transactions. Always be conscious of your surroundings, particularly when using an ATM or typing in your PIN, and avoid carrying valuable cards and documents with you.

Keep in mind that no respectable financial institution will ask you for account information or your Social Security number over the phone, by mail, or online — so any such line of questioning should be a red flag.

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