“We know what we are, but not what we may be.” – William Shakespeare
As quandaries of the self confront us in these confusing, modern times, we’re not only questioning our own identities, we’re trying to prevent others from stealing them. (Even Bill Shakespeare would shudder.)
Every year, about 15 million people in the U.S. have their identities stolen, incurring losses of over $50 billion dollars. Not only that, almost 100 million Americans are at risk of having their personal identification stolen due to leaks in databases held by corporate entities or the government. Every year, these figures grow by about 15-20%, meaning that, as of this year, an identity fraud incident is occurring 20 times every minute.
In other words, your personal info is out there, and a bunch of motivated criminals are working really hard to find it.
They’re sophisticated buggers, those identity thieves, employing tactics both tech-savvy and face-plantingly simple: from elaborate phishing scams, to hacking databases, to simply stealing your wallet or purse while you’re looking the other way, and then later surrendering all dignity in order to dumpster-dive into your trash (because they have a high tolerance for rotting food), these dudes and dudettes will stop at pretty much nothing to pretend they’re you.
At times it seems the faceless, nameless, collective-pains-in-our-asses just can’t be stopped, and that there’s no hope for a secure tomorrow. But we would be wrong to draw such a conclusion. You can protect yourself; you just have to be strategic.
Here are Egg to Apples’ recommendations for ways to protect your identity as well as the sensitive information held by your business or corporation.
1. Beware Fake Public WiFi
One insidious type of thief sets up fake WiFi networks in public places and tries to get you to connect. When you do, he or she extracts your personal information and uses it for evil and/or distributes your information to third parties.
To prevent this from happening, be extra fastidious before you connect to a new network. Most computers, cell phones, or other devices will ask for your permission before connecting — and with good reason. Examine the name of the network and be sure you know its source before clicking “accept” or “connect.”
Moreover, if you’re at a coffee shop or other business with free WiFi, take a moment to confirm with an associate the name of the network and/or password. Resist the temptation to connect to strange WiFi signals! You’ll be glad you did.
2. Shred Sensitive Mail Before Disposing
This one is pretty old-school, but it bears repeating. Think twice before tossing your credit card statements, banking receipts, tax information, medical bills, or any other document that contains bank account numbers or your social security number. You might not think it likely that someone will sift through your trash, but you’d be surprised what unpleasantries people will endure if it could lead to a big payday — with your hard-earned money.
3. Password-Protect Your Home WiFi
A large percentage of residences utilize a wireless router to connect to the internet. Apartment dwellers and homeowners alike: be sure to require a password in order to connect to your router! If you don’t, tech-savvy criminals can hack your home WiFi and associated networks to install malware, phishing emails, and other techno leeches that extract your info and farm it out to others.
It’s an unsettling thought, but even when in your home, you mustn’t get too comfy! Even if you live in a home that’s spaced far away from neighbors, thieves have been known to pull into driveways or adjacent streets until your router signal is detected.
Luckily, the solution is simple: internet password, or bust!
4. Don’t Use Obvious Passwords
Multiple password logins for your favorite consumer sites can be a real pain-in-the-neck, but they’re necessary if you’re hoping to keep your information secure. It’s important not just to commit to the first password that comes to mind, but rather to strategize passwords that are super hard for hackers to crack.
To do so:
- Don’t use a word you can find in the dictionary
- Never use the same password for more than one site
- Use a pass phrase instead of a password. The longer, the better.
- If you copy and paste your passwords into a word doc, don’t email it to yourself or store it on your computer. Keep a scrap of paper in your wallet or — better yet — don’t ever copy and paste the passwords; keep only password hints that will help you, and only you, remember.
5. Secure Sensitive Documents Behind Lock and Key
Get a safe for your home or business and bolt it to the floor. If you receive sensitive mailings to your home or business, get a mailbox that locks or use a P.O. Box for anything business-related. It might seem excessive, but better safe than sorry (get it?).
6. Review All Fraud Protection Policies Before Opening A Credit Card
Probability tells us that at some point someone will most likely use your credit card fraudulently, often making some kind of huge purchase in one go (last month my credit card company informed me that someone had used my account to buy $980 dollars worth of merch at a “discount store” and I thought, “well…at least they’re shopping around for a good deal).
In harrowing times as these, it pays to get backed by a company that won’t hold you responsible for obviously fraudulent charges, but who will investigate and ultimately cover your losses. This happened in the case of the discount-shopper thief: my credit card company (thankfully) protected me and sent me a letter two days later to initiate the fraud investigation. I wasn’t beholden to any of the charges and didn’t have to pay an extra cent.
The Takeaway: While credit card companies often get a bad rap (many times for good reason), seek out the ones that guarantee fraud protection and you’ll breathe a little easier.
7. Clear Cookies and Never Save Passwords On Public Computers
Despite their pleasant, childhood-evoking name, Cookies can lead to identity theft. For those of you who don’t know the term, “Cookies” describes website and preference tracking on internet browsers. They store pages you’ve visited as well as forms you’ve filled out (name, address, etc.) so your browser doesn’t have to start from scratch every time you log on.
In some cases, this is a benefit. For instance, if you’ve visited a favorite retailer’s site several times, you might see their ads pop up hours later on a search engine, as if magically sensing what you’ll like to see. If you log into a site many times a day, Cookies can also store your username and password for convenience. In these cases, it’s never magic — it’s Cookies!
But be wary when you’re browsing on a public computer at a library or other communal space. If you’re logging into your email account or other protected site, many times the browser will ask if you’d like it to save your password. Always hit “never” before proceeding. Be sure also to uncheck any boxes saying things like “save password for future use” or “remember me at this computer.”
Then, once you’re done with your session, go into the browser’s preferences or settings and select “Clear Cookies.” This will ensure that any data it may have collected during your browsing session will be deleted.
Employ these tactics and it’s much less likely you’ll be the unwitting victim of identity theft. And while you may look in the mirror and not be able to answer the question “Who Am I?” at least you know that no one else is doing the same thing, while invoking your name and trying to buy $980 dollars worth of stuff at a discount store.
Have you been the victim of identity theft? Has it led you to make changes in the way you conduct your business or run your home? Share your experience in the comments section!