You’re trying to use your credit card to pay for something, but it’s been declined. You know you’re nowhere near your limit yet, but the bank says you’ve exceeded it. It looks like you’re a victim of identity theft. Everyone thinks it can’t happen to them. But every year, the chances that it will are higher.
In 2016, 15.4 million people were victims of identity theft or some other type of fraud—16% higher than the previous year. Together, those 15.4 million people lost $16 billion. And the numbers continue to grow. What can you do to keep yourself safe? Here are a few tips.
- Don’t Reuse Passwords. One of the most common ways an identity thief can get your personal information is by stealing your passwords. If you use the same password for everything, that just makes it all the easier. Once they discover it, they can access your e-mail, bank account, and much more. Many identity thieves will take a newly discovered password and try it on a long list of other sites, to see if there are any matches. So make sure each password is unique. Now only that, you should make each one long and complex, to make it more difficult to guess.
- Install Firewall. For any device you use, that’s capable of accessing the Internet, make sure you have a good firewall installed, to keep unwanted visitors out of it. By breaking into one device, a thief can then gain access to any other device it’s connected to. They can monitor your web browsing, spy on you through your webcam, and get your personal information in a hundred other ways. Make sure any device you use is protected.
- Don’t Give Your Information to Anyone. Don’t tell anyone any of your passwords, no matter how much you trust them. Don’t give anyone your social security number unless it’s absolutely necessary, and make sure it’s an organization that you know and can trust. Don’t carry your social security card in your wallet, either. If it’s stolen, the thief will have access to all of your financial information.
- Check Your Credit Report Regularly. If you are a victim of identity theft or fraud, then the longer it takes for you to discover the problem, the more damage can be done, and the more difficult it will be to resolve. Check your bank statements regularly for suspicious activity, and get a free copy of your credit report at least a couple of times a year. If your credit score goes down dramatically without any obvious cause, then you may have been a victim of foul play. Find out the reason, then report the fraud to the police and the Better Business Bureau immediately.
- Consider a Credit Freeze. This is a bit more of an extreme measure than perhaps you’re prepared for, but if you find yourself at high risk for fraud, then you might want to look into it. By placing a freeze in your name with all the major credit unions, you prevent anyone from opening up a new line of credit in your name—including you. The freeze can be lifted if you need, say, a home loan, but it’s necessarily a complicated process, and depending on where you live, there may be a fee involved as well. This method should generally be used only as a last resort, but it is an effective preventative measure.
It’s imperative that you make sure your bank and/or credit union offer comprehensive fraud protection. This can reduce the out of pocket cost to you, in case you do become a victim of fraud. Identity theft can, in fact, happen to anyone. But if you take the appropriate measures to keep yourself safe, you can avoid being a victim.