Stealing your identity is big business for scammers, costing each victim an average of $5,000 a year. Luckily, there are some easy things you can do on your own to make yourself a harder target. It’s all about reducing the size of your digital footprint and keeping your data out of the hands of people or companies who’ll abuse it.
Follow these 9 tips below and you’ll be on your way to securing your online identity:
1. Pay close attention to your bank account. Most banks let you set up alerts for unusual charges that will be emailed or texted to your phone. Look for very small and very large charges and charges from locations you don’t recognize: many identity thieves test whether a bank account works by charging small amounts to it and hoping you won’t notice.
2. Ultra-personalize your credit card. Instead of signing the back of your credit card, instead write “ask for ID.” Then the person behind the counter will ask for your identification before a purchase, which is an extra step that will thwart anyone attempting to steal your identity and use your card in person. Additionally, if your bank lets you add a custom photo as the background to your credit card, use a photo of your face.
3. Lock down your privacy settings on social networks. That includes not granting access to spammy or untrusted apps. Social networks are gold mines for identity thieves: if they access your account, they’ll have everything they need to pretend they’re you. Here are 7 tips for going private on Facebook. And don’t forget LinkedIn: when it comes to social networks, LinkedIn users are more than twice as likely to have reported being a victim of fraud or identity theft than other consumers, and users of LinkedIn, Google+, Twitter, and Facebook had the highest incidence of fraud in a February 2012 study.
4. Remove your information from data mining websites that publicly post and sell it. You can do it yourself by following our free instructions or finding the opt-out process in the companies’ policies, or by using a paid service like DeleteMe. Having your information listed on these sites makes it easier for identity thieves to get into your accounts by finding authenticating info, like your mother’s maiden name or where you went to elementary school.
5. Use alias emails and phone numbers when signing up for or using online accounts. The alias will forward to your real inbox, meaning you’ll still receive all your messages but won’t be giving out your real email address. Use a tool like MaskMe (beta) to create these aliases, along with encryption to protect the personal information required to sign up for online accounts, including email, phone number, usernames, and passwords.
6. Never give out your personal information unless you absolutely have to. That means saying no to retailers who ask for your email and phone number at checkout, leaving “optional” fields blank during purchases and signups, and staying away from surveys and apps that require your data. Always assume that you should verify a request for your info is legitimate before you comply.
7. Beware of phishing. Be vigilant about phishing and spam attempts to get your SSN or bank account info. Some attempts can seem pretty convincing, but you can spot them through these characteristics: they often appear to have been sent from someone you know and email often, may refer to the name of a person you both know (which they scrape from your contacts lists), don’t have the company logo or official banner, ask for your information, and contain a link. Do not click the link! If you do, you may download a virus, a keylogger, or other malicious software that collects your sensitive information, including your credit card number.
8. Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) when you’re connecting to an open wireless network, like in a cafe or an airport, to stop other people from gathering your activities and info. VPNs create a secure tunnel between your computer and the website you’re visiting, keeping snoopers out. Some good VPN options are HotSpot Shield, which has a free version, or PrivateWifi, for a subscription fee.
9. Strong security means less vulnerability. Use strong, hard to crack passwords, and don’t reuse them across accounts and don’t share your login info, PIN numbers, or other sensitive data with anyone, not even your significant other. Take special care with your email and financial accounts or anywhere that’s linked to your credit card.