The holiday season ushers in all types of shoppers – including those on the hunt for your most valuable personal information. December was chosen as National Identity Theft Prevention and Awareness Month to shine a light on identity theft because it’s prime time for thieves to do their “shopping,” too. And while you may be aware of the heightened risk of theft during the holiday frenzy, you might be surprised to know that your credit card numbers are no longer at the top of their wish list.
Today, details such as your name, address, date of birth, social security number, driver’s license number, bank account numbers and passwords are all pieces of your identity that are as good as gold to thieves, year-round.
Identity thieves can get a wealth of personal and financial data by stealing your wallet, raiding your mailbox or going through your garbage; attaching skimmers to card readers; hacking into corporate databases or simply requesting it in an email or over the phone (usually pretending to be a legitimate company with which you regularly do business).
Your personal data is sold on the black market to commit ongoing identity theft and fraud – and is considered even more valuable than your credit card information. The consequences to your credit scores and good name can be devastating. Thieves can max out your credit cards and open new accounts in your name, drain your bank accounts, steal your tax refund – and even get medical treatment on your health insurance.
Here are some tips to help you guard against ID theft in December and year-round:
- Only share your social security number when necessary. It’s legally required in some situations, such as for wage and tax purposes, but plenty of businesses and organizations request it unnecessarily. Always ask why it’s needed and how it will be protected!
- Consider credit instead of debit when shopping with plastic. When you use a debit card, the money is withdrawn directly from your account. If your debit card information is stolen and used, your cash can be gone in an instant.
- Use only bank-affiliated ATMs. Generic (non-bank) ATMs, such as those found in gas stations and convenience stores, have less oversight and are choice targets for identity thieves using card readers, or skimmers, to steal your account information.
- Don’t overshare when out of town. Using social media to give a play-by-play of your adventures while traveling is like giving thieves an open invitation to make themselves at home with your personal information.
- Be wary of email attachments and email requests seeking personal information. Any email appearing to be from a legitimate organization, retailer or government agency that prompts you to open an attachment is a big red flag. It’s likely a phishing scam to get you to download malicious software that can access your information. Delete the email immediately!
- Protect your computer. Install antivirus and anti-spyware software, plus a firewall. Keep your Internet browser and operating system up to date. If you doubt the legitimacy of an update request, contact the manufacturer directly.
- Protect your mobile devices. Your smartphone or tablet is just as vulnerable to attack as your PC. Be wary about links, use security software, and don’t use public Wi-Fi when sharing personal or financial data.
- Use complex passwords. Longer is better with a random mix of numbers, letters and special characters. Don’t get complacent. Be sure to create a unique password for each site.
- Don’t toss it, shred it! Documents containing any piece of your financial, credit, personal or medical data should be shredded before they hit the curb. Thieves will dig through trash to find treasure.
- Monitor your credit profile. Monitoring your credit accounts and regular reviews of all three of your credit reports for unusual activity is one way to catch identity theft early.
Identity thieves struck 15.4 million consumers and cost them $16 billion in 2016. ID theft continues to ensnare more victims every year. This year alone, 145 million Americans had their personal data stolen in the Equifax breach, the largest consumer credit data breach to date. If you’re not already monitoring your credit, now is the ideal time to start.