Identity theft is a huge problem. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, it's the No. 1 property crime in the country, totaling $10 billion more than all other property crimes combined.
Everyone knows there are things we should do to protect ourselves, but too often, people just don’t know where to start. Two weeks ago, in my column "Hacking prevention 101: Where Zuckerberg went wrong," I looked at some of the simple mistakes that intelligent people make and told you how to choose strong, unique passwords for each of your accounts that are easy to remember, as well as other simple steps you should take to protect your identity.
Today, I provide six simple things you can do to protect yourself.
1. Income tax identity theft cost the IRS approximately $6 billion last year and delayed the refunds of legitimate taxpayers victimized by identity theft by an average of 278 days, according to the office of the National Taxpayer Advocate. There are many things you can do to lessen your chances of becoming a victim of income tax identity theft, but the single best way to prevent it is to file your income tax return early before an identity thief can beat you to the punch.
2. Identity thieves can get access to your email account, your online banking account and other accounts without even knowing your password merely by answering your security question, which enables them to change your password. The answers to many security questions, such as your mother’s maiden name, can be found relatively easily by a determined identity thief. There is no rule that says the answer you provide to your security question has to be logical. When your security question is your mother’s maiden name, use a nonsensical answer such as “grapefruit” that will protect you from identity thieves and be silly enough for you to remember.
3. Anti-virus and anti-malware security software are essential elements for all of your electronic devices, including your computer and smartphone. Many people neglect to include security software on their smartphone. It is important to keep your security software updated with the latest patches as soon as they become available. Too many people become victims of easily preventable identity theft when they fail to download the latest security patches and become victims of malware for which a security update has been issued. It is important to note that even if you have been diligent in keeping all your electronic devices updated with the latest security updates, you are still vulnerable to zero day exploits, newly discovered vulnerabilities in your electronic devices and software exploited by criminals, so it is important to never click on links or download attachments unless you have confirmed that they are legitimate and not sent by identity thieves. Remember, even paranoids have enemies. You may even want to use a separate computer at home for financial transactions such as online bill paying and online purchases and have another computer for the kids to use, so they do not unwittingly download malware while looking for free music or games.
4. Identity theft is a high-tech, low-tech and no-tech crime, so dispose of documents with personal information such as old credit card bills by shredding them. Your unshredded trash can be an identity thief’s treasure. While you are at it, don’t mail bills with checks in them by putting them in your mailbox and lifting the red flag to alert the postal carrier. You are also alerting identity thieves.
5. Use your EMV chip credit card whenever possible, and limit the use of your debit card to your ATM. Don’t use it for shopping because the laws that protect you from liability for fraudulent charges on your debit card are not as strong as those that protect you from fraudulent charges on your credit card. Furthermore, even if you report a fraudulent charge on your debit card immediately, the bank account to which your debit card is tied will be frozen, preventing you from accessing it while your bank investigates the matter.
6. Perhaps the best simple step you can take to protect yourself from becoming a victim of identity theft is to put a credit freeze on your credit reports at each of the three major credit reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Merely putting a fraud alert on your credit reports will provide little or no protection from identity thieves, but a credit freeze will prevent even an identity thief who has your Social Security number from accessing your credit report and making large purchases in your name. For more information about how to put a credit freeze on your credit reports, go to my blog, www.scamicide.com, and type in, “Why you should have a credit freeze” in the archives section at the top of the page.
Before I began teaching at Bentley University, I taught in the Massachusetts state prison system where I had a student who was serving two consecutive life sentences, which meant that when he died, he would begin serving his second life sentence. He told me how upon his being sentenced, he looked up at the judge and demanded, “How do you expect me to do two consecutive life sentences?” to which the judge replied, “Just do the best you can.” So it is when protecting yourself from identity theft. Just do the best you can.
Steve Weisman is a lawyer, a professor at Bentley University and one of the country's leading experts in scams and identity theft. He writes the blog scamicide.com, where he provides daily update information about the latest scams. His new book is Identity Theft Alert.