Identity theft can have serious repercussions for your online reputation, your privacy, your credit score, and your financial well-being. A fast-growing phenomenon, identity theft affects one in five Americans, with young adults and small business owners more susceptible than other groups. To make matters worse, it takes seconds to cause significant damage to both your online reputation and your finances. For example, a Dateline NBC investigation saw credit cards maxed out by thieves in less than one minute. Avoid identity theft with the tools described in this article.
Do identity theft prevention services work?
Less than one percent of identity theft crimes are ever solved, so your best defense is prevention. Numerous services have cropped up, claiming to be able to protect you from identity theft, but do they actually work? According to an extensive, real-world test conducted by PC World magazine, they don’t. Many services failed to deliver as promised, and those that did function as advertised left subscribers vulnerable to major loopholes.
For example, many identity theft prevention services give you the option to place a fraud alert on your credit report (something you can do yourself by calling the three major credit rating bureaus). Yet if a credit card issuer verifies an application by phone instead of through an automated system, these fraud alerts often fail to trigger. In the end, education and caution remain your best defenses against identity theft.
Take these steps to avoid identity theft
By following best practices in online privacy protection and reputation management, you can minimize the chances of falling victim to identity theft. Start with the following tips:
- Use strong passwords. Never use the same password for more than one application. Ideally, use a random password generator, and keep your passwords on paper only, with a duplicate copy in a safe deposit box. Never use your birthday, initials or any real words in your passwords.
- Keep personal information on a need-to-know basis. This tip comes courtesy of the Department of Justice’s website on identity theft. Challenge anyone or any website that asks for your Society Security number, mother’s maiden name, date of birth or other sensitive information. Make the third party explain their motives first, and never ever give this information to unsolicited telephone callers.
- Opt out of people-finder services. These are a valuable source of free information for identity thieves.
- Delete emails containing sensitive information. A good deal of personal information can be extracted from a compromised email account. Any email message containing a password, account numbers or other sensitive information should be deleted as soon as it’s read. Never send this type of information by email to anyone for any reason.
- Collaborate with others. You can join a neighborhood watch-type identity theft program, like the one run by the Identity Theft Council. Programs such as this can alert you to dangers in your local community.
- Avoid doing your banking or other sensitive activities in public places or on public networks. Even if you use your own laptop, there’s no guarantee a hacker isn’t listening in on the Web traffic at your local café. Hotel networks are also notorious for harboring identity thieves.
- Avoid posting personal information online. Anything that might potentially be used as a security question should never appear online. You probably can’t avoid posting information about your work history or favorite hobbies, unless you can live entirely without the Internet, but do avoid posting your mother’s maiden name, the make and model of your first car, the childhood street you grew up on or the full names of your siblings, children, parents or pets.
- Don’t click on links emailed to you. If your bank or other online financial services company sends you an email, go straight to their websites and log in via the usual channels. Links in emails can be disguised to take you to an identity thief’s website.
- Regularly review your bank and credit card statements as well as your credit report. If someone does steal your identity, you want to find out about it as soon as possible. Keep copies of these documents for at least a year.
Many other useful suggestions are available at the Federal Trade Commission websites.
Use online reputation management strategies to avoid identity theft
In addition to the suggestions above, check out the following articles that provide detailed information on how to avoid identity theft and maintaining a safe online reputation. True, no one strategy can completely mitigate the possibility of identity theft. However, the online reputation best practices described in the articles below can substantially lower the risk:
- How to Avoid Falling Victim to a Phishing Scam
- How to Avoid Online Scams
- How to Pick a Strong Password and Protect Your Privacy
- How to Protect Your Privacy from Facebook Breaches
- How to Report Identity Theft and Protect Your Online Reputation
- How to Protect Your Online Reputation and Privacy from People-Search Companies
Clement Lefebvre is an expert in online reputation management and Internet privacy. He’s also an experienced academic and scientific editor.