Hackers used the Equifax breach to gain a treasure trove of personal information in order to assume the identities of 143 million Americans. Social security numbers, birth dates and addresses allow the criminal minded to impersonate breach victims and attempt to wreak havoc on their credit and financial lives.
The trouble is, you never know when, where and how they might strike. Credit and identity monitoring is the best frontline defense in the battle against ID thieves.
It’s essential that consumers take steps to reduce their risk of identity theft beyond simply relying on credit card companies to alert them about any suspicious activity, says Kathy Cassell, a crime prevention specialist with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
“The results of identity theft could be catastrophic,” she says. “We live in a time and an age when you’ve got to have something in place.”
“Because identity theft is so rampant, it’s better to have multiple layers of oversight for your information,” Cassell says.
It is a certainty that the personal and financial data of 143 million Americans is being traded on Internet black markets. It’s a booming business. Contrast that with last year, when just 15.4 million people in the United States had their identities stolen, and the thieves taking $16 billion according to the Javelin Strategy & Research 2017 Identity Fraud Study.
Identity theft remains a major issue in the U.S. Among the fraud complaints the Federal Trade Commission receives, identity theft dominates as the top issue for consumers.
Why additional protection is necessary
You shouldn’t assume credit card companies alone will meet all of your credit and identity protection needs. “Because identity theft is so rampant, it’s better to have multiple layers of oversight for your information,” Cassell says.
She recommends having a discussion with your credit card company about what protective measures they have in place to determine where you might have needs that aren’t covered.
Identity theft protection services: Do you need them?
Although you can take steps on your own to lower the chances of your identity getting stolen, you can also purchase identity theft protection and credit monitoring services. Companies offering these services might help you track your credit activity. They can also help you understand how to place fraud alerts and freezes on your credit reports, among other services.
“Identity protection services kind of pick up where the average, busy person doesn’t have the time to,” Cassell added.
In addition to keeping an eye on your account activity, you can take action in various other ways to protect your personal information both offline and online.
Keeping your information secure offline
You can start by examining how you handle mail and other documents. Security experts recommend shredding any paperwork with personal information – such as receipts, credit applications, credit offers and bank statements – before throwing it away.
Furthermore, you should lock your financial records and documents in a secure place at home, and keep your purse or wallet in a safe place at work. When you go out, don’t take your social security card or number with you, and only carry the credit and debit cards you need.
Cassell advises having just one or two credit cards in your wallet. “People sometimes have a habit of carrying a lot of credit cards,” she says. “It’s harder to monitor all these different accounts you have.”
Other ways you can minimize the risk of your information getting stolen offline include destroying labels before you discard prescription bottles and opting out of prescreened mail offers for credit and insurance (call 1-888-567-8688 to opt out, or visit optoutprescreen.com). Additionally, take your outgoing mail to the post office or post office collection boxes, and remove what arrives in your mailbox as soon as possible.
Guarding your information online
Security experts caution against giving out personal information to anyone unless you know exactly who’s on the receiving end. If you get an email from a company asking for personal information, don’t click on any links in the email or call any phone numbers provided. Instead, go to the company’s website and call the customer service number listed there.
Similarly, you should ensure you’re dealing with reputable businesses when you shop online. “I would limit how you randomly Internet shop,” Cassell says.
When browsing the Web, use encryption software to keep your information secure. Before you enter personal or financial information online, look for the lock symbol in the status bar of your browser.
Other strategies for securing your personal information online include keeping your passwords private; not oversharing on social networks (which can allow identity thieves to get past challenge questions on your accounts); and using security software, such as antivirus programs, antispyware software and a firewall. You should also avoid sending personal information from your laptop or smartphone when you’re connected to a public and unsecured wireless network.