With recent data breaches in the news – from Target and Home Depot to Sony, Anthem and government agencies – I decided to attend a talk last week on identity theft. I used to regard this as one of those “not likely to happen to me” things. Not any more.

What struck me most in the presentation was the amount of effort needed to relieve people of their money: i.e., not much! Apparently the basics required are simply name, date of birth and social security number.

Revealing personal information

Be wary anytime you’re asked to reveal personal information. Think about the convenient sources already available on social media and other web applications. Criminals can target you through these avenues, then pay for services to gather the rest of the info they need.

Hackers package stolen information, such as social security numbers, and sell them. There is a ready market for that kind of information. Identity thieves may be able to buy a social security number for as little as $30. And very easily, your identity is stolen.

What can happen if your identity is stolen

This means that credit cards can be opened in your name, and used. The IRS reports a sharp increase in fraudulently filed tax returns – the thief files in your name before you do, then pockets your refund. Someone using your stolen identity can apply for a mortgage and get medical treatment on your health insurance. He or she can drain your bank account. It’s a lot harder to undo identity theft once it occurs than it is to pull it off.

Sobering. What steps can we take to prevent this from happening or at the very least stop it if it occurs?

What we can do

At home, we must protect our Wi-Fi networks by buying a new router every few years. It pays to have the most current software. And of course, be sure to use passwords that are complex. Do not use the same password for multiple accounts or websites! The presenter at my talk also stressed the importance of avoiding free Wi-Fi networks anywhere. Sorry, you’ll need to read a book while having your coffee!

Other steps to take include the following:

·      If you suspect your identity has been stolen, it is essential to contact the credit rating companies and place a fraud alert on your file. See the FTC’s publication Taking Charge: What To Do If Your Identity Is Stolen, page 6, for specific steps. (https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/artcles/pdf-0009-taking-charge.pdf)

·      Consider requesting a credit freeze to make it less likely an identity thief can open new accounts in your name. This prevents potential creditors from accessing your credit report.

·      Monitor the activity in your bank and charge accounts closely. The presenter suggested limiting ATM debit card use only to the cash machines at the bank (being careful when entering your pin number and making sure your session has ended before stepping away from the window.) He also advised using credit cards instead of debit cards, especially the ones containing the new “chip.” The chip makes the card more secure. Credit cards also give you a 30-day window to contest purchases.

Be cautious and diligent

The bottom line is we need to be judicious and cautious anytime we are asked to reveal personal information. With any inquiry ask yourself who needs this information and why? Do you really trust this person or business? The ease and convenience we enjoy on the internet also provide determined criminals the opportunity to access our personal information. Now more than ever, it pays to be diligent in protecting our identities.