Identity Theft: How Protected Are You?
What do Equifax, Marriott, Yahoo!, and T-Mobile all have in common? You probably guessed it. They have been hacked and had their customers’ personal information exposed and/or stolen. It seems hackers are always one step ahead of us and companies are not keeping up or even worse, ignoring the problem altogether. Hacking has become so sophisticated that they are even disrupting our economy. Recently, gas lines were disrupted on the east coast and even the meat supply was affected.
Whether we like it or not, our information is on the Internet and therefore, exposed to sophisticated hackers who are happy to sell it to the highest bidder. Pretty scary, huh? It is. And unless you have been completely off the grid without ever using the Internet, the chances of your information being available on the “dark web” is pretty high. If you use the Internet and have paid for something, applied for a loan, accessed your medical record, or used any site where you provided personal information, you are susceptible.
So, how can we protect ourselves? While I do not believe we are able to 100% fully protect ourselves, there are some steps you can take to safeguard your information and your identity from being compromised. And almost all of it can be done for FREE (my favorite word)!
1. Sign Up for Credit Monitoring
Considering the vast number of hacks over the past 5-10 years, I will bet you were affected and as part of the “I’m sorry”, you received access to credit monitoring at no charge. I hope you signed up! If not, these are great tools to notify you if there are any new credit lines that were opened in your name. First, check out your credit report and verify that it was you. If not, you have options to dispute it. Then, if you suspect fraud, you can place a freeze at all 3 credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, Transunion) so no further activity can take place. This is free, by the way, thanks to a federal law passed in September 2018. You might even want to freeze your reports as an advance precaution if you find out your information might have been exposed (see recent T-Mobile hack).
2. Download Your Credit Reports
Even if you have not received a credit monitoring alert lately, I recommend my clients download their credit reports once per year at www.annualcreditreport.com. It can be done once per year at no charge, however due to COVID-19, you are allowed to download your credit reports once per week! Now that you have plenty of chances to catch something, take advantage.
3. Use a Credit Card
With the caveat of “use credit responsibly”, paying with and disputing a charge with a credit card company is easier than with your bank debit card. Plus, with a credit card, the money doesn’t come directly out of your account, giving the card company time to investigate before your bill comes due. Then, if necessary, they can take steps to cancel your card and send you a new one. More so than banks and credit unions, credit card companies have protections in place for customers who may be the victims of fraud. You may have even gotten a phone call or text asking if you made a particular purchase because it seemed unusual. While banks are starting to do this too, I prefer something that also helps me build my credit, which a bank card cannot do.
4. Get a Password Manager
I wish I could say I have always used one, but after starting my business, it seemed absolutely imperative. I do not know how I survived before this marvelous tool. LastPass and 1Password are two well-known companies, but there are others. The basic service is usually offered for free. So, how many online accounts do you have? I will bet it is well over 50. Now, how many different passwords have you created for those sites? I will safely assume you are not creative enough (neither am I) to come up with 50 unique passwords, let alone remember them. A password manager has one password that will generate hard to guess passwords for all of your sites and many times, pre-fill them, so you only have to remember one (please use some creativity for the one password and write it down).
5. Use Multi-Factor Authentication
In addition to a password manager, having an additional code sent to your e-mail or cell phone is a great way to deter someone from accessing your account even if they found out your login credentials. Many companies have moved to this simple, extra step to protect their customers. Now, if you receive a code that you did not request, you know someone is trying to access your account and it’s time to change your login. Please do not forget this step! When given the opportunity, always set up multi-factor. And of course, it is free!
6. Protect Your Social Security Number
It seems like everyone nowadays is asking for our social security number. My biggest pet peeve is the doctor’s office. Why would a medical office need my social security number? Maybe I’m missing something, but if it doesn’t make sense and it isn’t required, I’m not giving it out. If they insist, ask how it will be used? If there is not a legitimate reason, do not provide it. You have a right to protect this unique number.
7. Look Into Identity Theft Protection
Companies like LifeLock started for this very purpose: to protect us and if necessary, put our lives back in order once someone has stolen our identity. We hope it never comes to this, but if it does, identity theft companies provide recovery services. In addition, they provide you with digital security tools that will monitor the dark web, credit reports, even social media. Everything I mentioned earlier you can do for free, but these services will typically cost you. If you are lucky enough though, some employers may offer these services at a discount or even pay for them on behalf of their employees. Check out your benefits and sign up!
Early in my career and before becoming a financial planner, I worked in computer network security for over 6 years. That was the early 2000’s. Even then, it was easy to see this was an industry that will have some staying power many years to come. Hackers will always be around and can do a lot of financial and emotional damage that can take years to recover from. Do not be a victim and take some easy, free, proactive steps to protect yourself and your family.