If you’re like most people, you take care of most of your finances online these days. While you might have once been hesitant about online banking or typing in your credit card number to buy that sleek new laptop, now, you’ve probably come around to thinking nothing of depositing checks using your smartphone, or even filling out applications that require your social security number.
What’s more is that you probably use cash less often, relying on your credit and debit cards for everything from coffee runs to major purchase to online vacation booking. During peak shopping holidays or tax season, even more financial information is making its way through the postal system on online networks. All of these activities make you a prime target for identity thieves and financial fraudsters.
Unfortunately, much of this is out of your control, as the numerous data breaches that have happened in the last few years have illustrated. In 2014, there were 1,540 data breeches worldwide — up 46 percent from the prior year – resulting in potential access to one billion data records, according to CreditCards.com. More than 31 million U.S. consumers actually reported that their credit cards were compromised that year. In the wrong hands, your Social Security number, credit card account information or any other personal data can become a goldmine to a financial thief.
Although some of those things are out of your control, it doesn’t mean you can’t be proactive about protecting yourself. Keep reading…
What’s the big deal?
Besides just getting charged for something you didn’t purchase, someone performing financial transactions or opening accounts in your name can have far-reaching effects. For instance, if someone runs up a balance on an account opened using your social security number, it will mess up your credit score when the bill is not paid.
And, as you know, credit score is what most lenders and creditors use to determine if you qualify for their products, as well as the interest rate you will pay on everything from auto loans, home mortgages, credit cards, and more. Credit score is also used by landlords, prospective employers, and insurance companies to assess your financial responsibility.
In short, your credit profile can affect where you live, where you work, the car you drive, and the bills you pay. If something as minor as a single late payment can stay on your credit history for years and affect your credit rating, just imagine what stolen accounts in your name can do. At the very least, it could delay your plans if identity theft if first discovered when you apply for a loan or line of credit. At the worst, if it’s been going on for a long time, it can take months or even years to clear your name.
That’s why, as busy as you might get, you can’t ignore the paper pileup on your counter. Lurking on your statements could be signs that someone stole your personal information, and used it to commit financial fraud.
Remember, you can’t fully prevent identity theft, so be sure to run far away from any company that claims that to be the case. What you can do, however, is be a smart consumer who knows how to protect yourself, that way you can catch any bad behavior and put a stop to it the minute it starts. Here are the things you should start doing today if you’re not already doing them:
1. Carefully review all of your monthly account statements. In this age of paperless statements, it’s easy to get lax, but don’t. You can still review accounts online, so don’t feel like you need to kill any trees to be diligent. However, make it a point to go over each line item to look for unfamiliar charges. Before you panic, do some investigating to make sure it’s not for a purchase you forgot about, or maybe something bought by another user on your card.
2. Shred mail with your personal information on it. Some thieves still go the old school route of dumpster diving to steal people’s information. Don’t make it easy for them by throwing away unopened credit card offer letters. Better still, opt out of credit card offers altogether. Go to OptOutPrescreen.com for more information.
3. Use strong passwords online. Each of your banking, credit, and financial accounts, should have different, and complex passwords. Most important, protect your email account with two-step authentication since that is the gateway to all of your personal information.
4. Be careful when using free WiFi hotspots. Don’t perform any financial transactions or log into your bank when you’re using the coffee shop WiFi. Even newbie hackers can access your information that way.
5. Set up notifications to do the account monitoring for you. Most institutions allow you to set up text and email alerts so that you are notified every time a new transaction takes place.
6. Get a copy of your credit report each year. You’re entitled to one copy from each of the three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) via AnnualCreditReport.com. If you space them out, you can pull one each quarter. Look for any suspicious activity.
7. Check your credit score, too. Sites like Credit Karma provide free credit scores, or you can pay for them for a small fee. Some credit cards now provide you with your credit score for free as a member perk.
8. Stay vigilant against the latest scams. If you watch the local news or read the paper, you’ll stay in the know about scams in your area. Common ones are calls from the IRS claiming you owe money (they will never contact you by phone), and callers offering to lower your credit card interest rate for a fee.
If you’re doing all of the above, you’ve mounted a stronger defense against thieves, but no one is immune. Here’s what to do if you suspect ID theft or spot fraudulent activity:
Report possible fraud ASAP. The longer suspicious activity goes unreported, the more damage it can do to your account. Especially in the case of a debit card, not reporting fraudulent activity within a small window of time (usually 72 hours) might result in your checking account being tied up, and more liability for you while the bank investigates. For credit card accounts, the maximum liability amount is $50, but either way, the sooner you make the call, the less chance there will be for the problem to snowball.
Take action. Your credit issuer or bank will likely close out your account and issue you a new card, but the problem could go deeper than just a bogus purchase or two. Criminals might be opening new lines of credit in your name right now, and the only way to know for sure is to issue a fraud alert with one of the three credit bureaus. So, if you decide to place the security alert with Experian, they are obligated to notify Equifax and TransUnion. This will put a temporary freeze on all of your credit reports so that no new accounts can be opened without your permission. Many experts suggest also filing reports with your local police department and the FTC if you confirm that identity theft has happened.
Restore your identity. This can be a time consuming process depending on the level of theft that took place. It could require making calls, filing paperwork, and other clerical tasks to restore your compromised credit files.
Consider putting protections in place. With more and more data breeches and sophisticated fraud schemes everyday, some consumers are turning to ID monitoring and protection services to keep watch over their accounts for them. Mostly it’s for peace of mind, but it does come with a price, starting at $9.99 a month and up. Just be careful since there are shady companies that take advantage of people’s fears by charging them hefty fees for so-called “protection” that really does nothing. The credit bureaus each offer monitoring, so start by comparing their services if you’re interested.
Identity thieves can’t succeed if consumers fight back. By committing to the simple acts of checking your statements, pulling your credit reports, and considering an identity theft protection service, you’ll help put the fraudsters out of business for good.