In July, we wrote about how to protect your electronic devices. If you missed it then you can find it by clicking here. Now we want to turn our attention to protecting your identity and your financial assets.
In the summer of 2017, you may have read or heard about the Equifax breach, which impacted more than 145 million consumers. In recent months, Equifax settled a lawsuit over the incident. If this is news to you, you can find out if you are impacted and evaluate settlement options by clicking here. You will only need to spend 5-10 minutes to determine if you were impacted, and whether you qualify for a settlement or not. You will only need to spend another 5-10 minutes on a few steps below to better protect yourself going forward.
1) Freeze your credit – Few cyber criminals go through their efforts just for the joy of finding and exploiting your personal information. Most want one thing – money. They either want to sell your information to a third party, or they want to exploit the information for themselves. Regardless, the first step in protecting yourself is freezing access to your credit reports. This will prevent anyone from taking loans (small business, auto, credit cards, cell phones) out in your name, as lenders review your credit report(s) before extending credit to you. While it may seem inconvenient, freezing your credit is the first step you should take. To initiate a freeze at each of three primary agencies, go to the following three credit reporting agency websites:
• Transunion: https://www.transunion.com/credit-freeze
• Experian: https://www.experian.com/freeze/center.html
Keep in mind that freezing your credit at one agency does not freeze your credit at all of them.
Note – the credit agencies will give you a PIN number to access your report and unfreeze access in the future. Keep this number written down in an accessible place, as you’ll need it to unfreeze your credit. You will also need to remember to unfreeze your credit when you apply for mortgages, car loans, or anything else that may require access to your credit report. Ask which agency the lender would like to access, as you can lift freezes for limited periods of time at each agency.
2) Credit over Debit – Consumer anti-fraud laws are stronger with credit cards than they are with debit cards. Credit card companies will put themselves between you and a transaction whereas with a debit card the cash leaves the account right away. As long as you are comfortable managing a credit card, and are not prone to accumulating and maintaining a balance which has double digit interest rate, then use your credit card over a debit card. Furthermore, we don’t recommend using the debit card features of brokerage accounts.
3) Actively Monitor your Accounts– Many credit card companies will allow you to put an alert on your card for transactions above a specified amount. While this is important and recommended to do, sometimes it is the smallest transactions that you need to be looking for. Small transactions are typically “test” transactions to see if the credit card information is valid. Once the information is deemed valid, you will likely see several more significant charges. Getting in front of the second round of transactions may save you a lot of headaches and time.
4) Create Strong Passwords – while we addressed this in our previous blog, we would be remised to not include it here as well. Use complicated passwords that are made up of alphanumeric characters and symbols. Most importantly, change your passwords with some regularity, especially if you suspect your information is at risk.
Using complex passwords and PINs especially rings true when it comes to your cell phone. For many people, their cell phone is their primary source of online access, and as a result, likely at the greatest risk. Many people have bank information auto populated on websites or applications. Some people even have their most sensitive information stored in the notes section of their phone. (Don’t do this!) Using a 6-digit PIN rather than 4 digits is an easy start.
For entertaining (and informative) tips on how to create passwords, we've included a video of Edward Snowden on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzGzB-yYKcc&=&feature=share
While there are no guarantees that your sensitive information may never be accessed by others, there are certainly steps you can take to increase the probability that it is not. The best any of us can do, is to be proactive and be diligent about our digital footprints. Proactively freezing your credit, utilizing your credit card over your debit card, regularly reviewing your account activity, and creating complicated passwords all help make yourself a difficult target for cyber criminals.