By now, you have probably heard about the enormous 143 million-person Equifax data breach, which exposed the personal and financial history of millions of Americans. According to Equifax, the breach happened during the three-month period of May through July, and the hackers accessed personal information such as Social Security numbers, names, addresses, birth dates, and driver’s license numbers.
Though an attack of this magnitude is uncommon, identity theft has become an everyday occurrence. This is why it is so important to remain vigilant and know how to protect yourself and your personal information from theft. While the risk of identity theft always exists, learning to recognize the most common threats is the first step to protecting yourself.
Spam Email and Phishing
Ever since the emergence of email, spam messages have been clogging our inboxes every day of the week. This annoyance is also a very serious security threat. Many of these emails ask for identifying information, such as our birthdates, addresses, names, and credit card information, which can then be used against you.
Phishing attacks can come in a variety of other forms besides email including IMs, pop-up notifications, and fake websites, which may ask for identifying information ranging from your SSN and credit card number to seemingly mundane information like your mother’s maiden name or the town you grew up in. This information can then be used to steal from you directly or gain access to your accounts.
Phone scams are a commonly-known practice of a person trying to persuade their victim to divulge personal information over the phone. Often, the caller acts as a government agency, well-known utility company, or other authority figure in the hopes that you freely give them your personal information.
Hackers can also gain access to your personal information via malware, which are dangerous programs that can install themselves on your computer. Once that happens, they can monitor your activity, record your personal information, or even hijack your entire machine.
How to Protect Yourself
With so many threats out there, protecting yourself from identity theft can seem like a daunting task. However, there are a handful of simple ways to help protect yourself from a variety of attacks.
Learn How Agencies Will Contact You
Both the government and private companies have standard procedures for how they will contact you. For example, the IRS will never call you without first sending a letter. If you’re contacted by somebody claiming to work with the IRS over the phone, it should immediately raise a red flag. If you’re not sure whether or not the person contacting you has a legitimate reason, the safest bet is always to reach out to the agency yourself, using their official phone number or mailing address, and asking for clarification.
Keep your SSN and Other Identifying Information Private
Your Social Security Number is one of the most important pieces of identity that you have. If someone steals it or gains access to it, they can cause long-lasting damage that you will spend months cleaning up. Keep your Social Security card in a safe location and always be extremely careful, only giving out your number when it’s absolutely necessary.
Keep Your Antivirus and Antimalware Software up to Date
It’s much easier to prevent a computer virus than it is to remove one, and with new threats coming out every day, it’s never been more vital to keep your antivirus and antimalware software up to date. With only a few minutes of effort, your software can easily be set to update itself and scan your computer automatically, helping protect your computer from online threats.
Monitor Your Credit Report
Every U.S. citizen is entitled to a free copy of their Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion credit report every year from annualcreditreport.com. Ordering one report every four months from one of the three credit reporting agencies will help you stay vigilant all year long and detect potential identity theft as soon as possible.
In addition to your annual credit reports, there are several other free options that can keep you updated on a more regular basis. Some credit cards and bank accounts include your FICO credit score with your monthly statement. There are also free credit monitoring services, such as CreditKarma, that can give you a more accurate picture of any new accounts that may have been opened in your name.
Freeze Your Credit
Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion will allow you to freeze your credit for no cost. After your credit is frozen, no one can take out a new line of credit in your name (including yourself). If you need to access your credit, you can place either a temporary or permanent “lift” with the assigned PIN number. Requesting a “lift” may come with a small fee (such as $10 depending on your state of residence). Freezing your credit will block any new lines of credit from being opened under your name and is one of the safest ways to keep your credit report clean. However, even with a security freeze, it is still important to monitor any suspicious activity on all existing accounts.