Identity theft is a real problem that just won’t go away. And as we move toward a more immersed on-line presence, identity theft is becoming more devastating for the victim, easier to commit for the criminal, and especially more important to guard against for all of us. This is why having a strong identity theft protection strategy is crucial as 2021 goes on.
Your first line of defense in protecting yourself from identity theft is physical. Just because we’re approaching a digital economy and living more on-line, there is still a physical paper trail that can be taken advantage of. Identity thieves and unsavory data-miners still employ the age old technique of sorting through your garbage. What you throw out may be useless and meaningless to you, but it can add a piece to a larger puzzle that you aren’t even aware is being put together. Dumpster divers collect your personal information and wait for that final piece to be tossed out so they can build the key that unlocks your identity. Shred all your personal information before throwing it out. You already know not to just toss out old bills, bank statements but even junk mail with your name, unopened credit card offers, doctor’s office notices are small pieces that can add legitimacy to the thief’s bogus profile they are building.
The second line of defense is preventive. Stop the identity thieves at the source. Make sure you keep your identity protected by protecting the data that can lead to its theft. The use of our social security number as a casual identifier has led to some lax security precautions. Many of us just hand over those nine digits as if we were handing out candy. Make certain that the request for your social security number is valid and necessary. Another preventive measure we need to take is taking the password reminders seriously. If I can spend two minutes looking you over and guess your password, it is too weak. Never use family member names, dates, sports teams, or anything easily identifiable as “you”, it’s too easy for the thieves to figure out. And never make your password uniform across all your accounts. We all have many accounts, it’s difficult to remember which password belongs to which platform so many people choose to use the same password for everything. Which means, when a low security site (like an on-line game) is hacked and the database is spilled, they now have access to your high security site (such as your bank account) with the same password.
Once you have closed the gates and made sure you are no longer freely handing out your personal information, the next step is to get active in damage control that may have already occurred. The data brokers are out there and they are actively building a profile on you. Every purchase you make with a credit card, discount with a store reward card, make a social media post… every action could be one more piece of the puzzle that leads to the key of unlocking your identity. This is where you need to balance how much security you are willing to give up for convenience. That gasoline card gives you $0.05 off per gallon, but it’s tracking you. Decide what you want to keep and what you can get rid of. We are unable to completely and 100% protect our data, but we can limit how much goes out. Once you eliminate the leaks, go on-line and erase some of the collected data. Close unused accounts, remove personal data from on-line profiles and shopping records, and you can request your collected information be deleted directly from the data brokers themselves.
Now that the leaks are plugged and the holes are patched, the final step is to remain vigilant against the threat. Unless you plan to live as a hermit and disengage from society, it is impossible to remain completely safe from identity theft. But by reducing your digital footprint and then watching for unusual activity, you may be able to minimize the threat and decrease the potential for damage. Check your credit rating with the three large bureaus and remain aware of any changes by rotating each of their once-per-year free report so that you’re getting updated every few months and not all three at the same time. Stay on top of your bills, don’t let them get away from you. Stay organized to the point where if a new charge starts rolling in, you’ll notice it right away. And if some old billing unexpectedly goes away? It’s a possible sign that someone has breached your profile and is beginning to steal your identity. Some basic financial maintenance will go a long way toward protecting yourself from identity theft.