Identity fraud is a very serious problem in the United States. According to the latest report of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2016 about 10% of all people age 16 or older reported having been victims of some sort of identity theft in the past 12 months. The number of affected people increased from a reported 7% in 2014. The losses generated from all identity theft crimes reported in 2016 amounted to 17.5 billion dollars.
Identity theft is a wide term that encompasses a multiplicity of crimes. They all have in common that some fraudster uses personal data to pretend they are you to get some gain (more commonly financial). The type of information that can be stolen and the way it can be used against you varies a lot. However, some of the most common crimes concerning identity fraud are stealing information to get access to bank or investment accounts, getting some sort of credit in your name, stealing your tax refunds, use your medical information to get treatments or medicine or use identity to commit another crime (among many others). It is indeed a pressing problem since, in the worst cases, identity theft can go on for years without the victim noticing it.
One of the most tangible effects of the advances in technology in the past decade is that a bigger part of our lives takes place digitally. To our convenience, more services are provided online, saving us a lot of time and even expanding the possibilities for interaction and communication that we have. However, the downside is that more of our personal information is being stored, creating a huge digital footprint that makes us much more vulnerable. Not only there is a lot more data available about ourselves and our behavior, but also information is more interconnected and therefore more exposed. Moreover, we are also vulnerable to new fraud schemes that succeed due to the more anonymous character of online interactions.
According to the Pew Research Center, six in ten adults “would like to do more” and increase their efforts to protect their privacy and their personal information online. The statistics might sound shocking and the ways in which identity fraud can take place might be overwhelming, however, it is possible to create a simple plan to protect yourself and your family. Here 4 steps that can help you prevent identity fraud:
- Information Research
The first thing you need to do is figuring out what information is there about you and whether you are currently being the victim of any identity fraud. It is advisable to start with in-depth research:
The first step is getting your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. Credit bureaus are institutions that collect data from creditors and lenders. These reports show a unique history of your financial activities and in particular, will show if there is any unexpected credit under your name.
After that, general background research from Nuwber is highly advisable. This will give you a summary of all the information that is available from you online. Not only do you get further information about credit history, but you will also be able to check if there are any criminal records or judgments under your name, information about evictions, business records, and about marriages and divorces. This will help you find any irregularities and make a plan to solve them.
After an initial background check, it is advisable to continuously monitor your bank statements, any other investment or financial statements, and medical statements. If you see anything unusual, make sure to clarify it with your bank or financial institution right away.
- Be aware of how you disclose information
The second step is to be cautious about the information you share. A big proportion of identity frauds start with situations in which you are tricked to give sensitive data. For example, some phishing tactics imply that you get an email that appears to be from your bank where they ask you to “reenter” or “confirm” banking information or any other personal data. Spoofing uses the same tactic but by telephone. In any case, check before providing any confidential data. Banks and other financial institutions are very clear about never asking their customers for data. If in doubt, always call your financial institution.
- Set up online security
The right online security strategy can save you from a lot of nightmares. Although it is difficult to keep up with every new technological application, certain general steps can significantly increase the security of your online accounts. Wired has a very interesting “Digital Security Guide” that will help you set up the right strategy depending on the type of user you are. In general, the following measures should be a must for anyone with an active online life:
- Set up (different) strong passwords for every account you have online.
- Use 2-step authentication options in accounts that allow it.
- Set up alerts or notifications whenever a transaction is made with your credit cards (most online banking systems allow it).
- Use digital wallets to pay in online stores that will keep your information encrypted in every transaction.
- Keep your computer and smartphone up to date in terms of security software.
- Close any unused accounts or apps. This will minimize the risk of personal data being stolen.
- Set up offline security
The right online security measures should be accompanied by the right strategy offline.
- Freeze your credit lines. This means that the three reporting bureaus will not allow any new credit files to be opened unless you explicitly allow them to by unfreezing them.
- Be very careful to properly dispose of (tear or shred) any documents containing sensitive data (bank statements, financial papers, social security papers)
- Protect your Wi-Fi network by making sure it has an anonymous name (that cannot be linked to your home) and using a strong password for it.
- Get a secure mailbox
Although the numbers show that identity fraud is a very serious thing, there is no reason to feel panicked or overwhelmed. Having the right strategy to protect yourself and your family will make sure you avoid future problems. It is important to start by checking that you are not currently being the victim of any identity fraud and then setting up the right measures online and offline that will prevent anyone taking advantage of your data.