Protect yourself against identity theft
Steps you can take to avoid fraud and financial losses
If you are concerned about identity theft and the potential for financial losses as a result you have lots of company — but maybe not enough.
A recent survey by Bankrate.com found that many Americans have little to no fear of identity theft, despite a number of significant data breaches in recent years at companies like Target and Home Depot. That could spell disaster for people who are not taking steps to safeguard their financial accounts and other sensitive personal information.
According to the Bankrate Money Pulse Survey in October 2015, 54% of respondents said they are very or somewhat frightened of identity theft, compared with 80% in a similar survey in 2008. And 46% of respondents said they or somebody they know has been a victim of identity theft, up from 34% in 2008.
However, 43% of respondents said they had little to no fear, compared with 19% in 2008. Although the level of concern appears to have decreased, the incidence of identity theft and fraud has not.
There is a new identity fraud victim every two seconds, according to the 2015 Identity Fraud Survey, conducted annually by Javelin Strategy & Research, a California firm that has tracked identity theft for more than a decade. Identity fraud is defined as the unauthorized use of a person’s personal information for illicit financial gain. Examples are taking control of existing financial accounts or opening new accounts, using a stolen credit or debit card account, or fraudulent purchases.
According to the Javelin study, $16 billion was stolen from 12.7 million identity fraud victims in the U.S. in 2014, compared with 12.5 million in 2008. The survey is the nation’s longest-running study of identity fraud, with 58,800 respondents since 2003. LifeLock, Inc., a provider of proactive identity theft protection services for individuals and businesses, provided partial funding for the survey.
Avoiding identity theft
The first step to avoid identity theft is to realize it can happen to you and you need to be proactive in protecting your personal information. We’ve gathered some information and recommendations that can help reduce the risks and decrease losses if fraud does occur.
Secure your accounts and personal information:
- Shred financial documents and paperwork containing personal information, such as bank statements, receipts, and credit card bills before you discard them. Consider using a safe in your home or a safety deposit box to store Social Security cards, birth certificates, passports, or other personal documents.
- Protect your Social Security number. Do not carry it with you or write it on checks or other documents. Do not reveal the number unless absolutely necessary or instead provide another form of identification.
- Do not reveal personal information via phone, mail, or online unless you are certain of the recipient.
- Never use an unsecured Wi-Fi network to check your financial information, shop, or pay bills — even at home. If you don’t have a password protected network for your home, put one in place.
- Do not click on links in unsolicited emails. Install anti-virus and anti-spyware software on your computer and be sure to update as necessary.
- Create strong passwords, security questions, and answers. Passwords should have upper and lowercase letters, along with numbers and/or punctuation, so they are non-English words. This helpful link, How Secure is My Password, is a good way to check the strength of your password.
Monitor your financial accounts and statements — and be alert to suspicious activity, including:
- Bills that do not arrive as expected.
- Unexpected credit cards or account statements.
- Denials of credit or merchants’ refusal to accept checks.
- Calls or letters about purchases you did not make.
- Charges on your financial statements that you do not recognize.
Defend against identity theft immediately if you suspect it has occurred:
- Contact your bank and other financial institutions.
- Place a fraud alert on your credit reports by contacting one of the following credit bureaus:
- Change your passwords for all accounts that may be compromised.
- Consider closing accounts that may be compromised.
- Monitor your financial accounts and credit reports for suspicious activity.
- Report the identity theft to the FTC: 877-438-4338; https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov.
Identity theft can happen to anyone but there are precautions you can take. Protect personal information and monitor financial statements and credit activity. Use free credit monitoring reports available through the credit bureaus to check for unauthorized charges or suspicious activity, and report any suspected fraud or stolen personal information. It’s recommended to file a police report to help correct your credit reports and provide to creditors as proof of the fraud.
Stephen McCardell is a banking center manager in Middleton for Wisconsin Bank & Trust, member FDIC.
Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine – your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.