Identity theft is one of the country’s fastest-growing crimes, affecting children, the elderly and everyone in between. Unsurprisingly, the rise in identity theft has correlated to the rise of the Internet, where information is freely accessible from a mere Google search.
Whether it’s your home address, your phone number or even your full Social Security number, the odds are good that your personal and private data are somewhere out there on the Internet, just waiting to be stolen by a no-name crook.
Despite the depth of the problem, there are ways to protect yourself from becoming a victim of identity theft. Read on for five tips to prevent online identity theft.
Limit the amount of data you share about yourself
The best of five tips to prevent online identity theft is to limit the amount of personal data you share about yourself online and in person. Limiting the amount of data available about yourself and your family will make it considerably more difficult for identity thieves to put together the kind of digital dossiers they need to crack into your accounts.
Always be careful about giving out information such as your date of birth, phone number, home address, Social Security number and any banking information (credit card numbers and so forth). Similarly, avoid giving out too much information publicly about your family members, friends and interests. Thieves can use this information to flesh out their profiles and pretend to be you more effectively.
In some cases, it’s impossible to keep your data hidden, such as when a people-search database crawls government databases for information in old public records. If you discover your name on a people-search website, look around the website or call the site owner to find out if there’s a way to remove your information.
Use strong passwords for all your online accounts
A strong password offers a huge defense against identity thieves and is an essential part of protecting your online privacy. Unfortunately, most Internet users rely on easily cracked passwords such as “12345” or “iloveyou.”
To help protect your identity, use a strong password that includes symbols, numbers and upper and lower case letters. If you have a hard time making up a strong password, try using a mnemonic device. For example, “I was born at New York Mercy Hospital in 1975” becomes “Iwb@NYMHi1975.”
One of the biggest mistakes people make online (besides using an ineffective password) is using the same ineffective password for all their online accounts. If your email password is the same as your banking password, which is also the same as your Facebook password, you’ve got a problem. By cracking just one account, an identity thief could gain access to all your sensitive data.
For more advice on a good password, check out this article.
Avoid spam email and suspicious Internet apps
A 2009 report from Internet security company Symantec revealed that more than 90 percent of all email is spam. It may seem like a shocking statistic, but the only thing it really proves is just how committed Internet criminals are to scamming their victims. That’s why it’s particularly important to be careful about what email attachments you open. When in doubt, just delete.
If you receive an email from your bank asking for your user name or password information, take a step back. As a rule, organizations won’t ask for your account information or passwords through email. If you have doubts about an email’s authenticity, you should call your financial institution and confirm the email directly.
Similarly, you should avoid suspicious-looking applications online. Whether on your phone or through a social networking website like Facebook, third-party applications can often hide destructive worms and other info-grabbing computer viruses. This article offers some additional advice on downloading and using third-party apps safely.
Monitor your data online and offline
Sometimes, identity theft goes unnoticed for months, or even years, because victims aren’t aware of the crime. By the time they discover they’ve been attacked, it’s too late, and their credit and reputation are in ruins. That’s why it’s important to stay on top of identity theft by monitoring your name online.
In addition to frequently checking your personal finances (bank and credit card statements, credit reports and so forth), you should check your name in Google search results and other top search engines.
Shred personal documents
Although the Internet has been a boon for identity thieves, there’s still a number of old-fashioned criminals who prefer dumpster diving to find their victims. That’s why it’s important to shred all your personal documents before you discard them. Shredding is particularly important when dealing with financial information, such as bank statements, credit card offers, and bills.
Above all else, the important thing is to be aware of your online reputation and personal privacy. People who are alert about their identity and who use these tips to prevent online identity theft are the ones who make identity theft the most difficult.
Rob Frappier is community manager for ReputationDefender.