By Larry Reed
Technical Writer, Design Rush
Identity theft occurs when a malicious third party deliberately assumes your identity for the purpose of obtaining some sort of an advantage over you, or otherwise cause you harm. Identity thieves may use your information to make purchases, apply for loans, file tax returns, take control of your social media profiles, or sell your data on the black market. According to a study conducted by Javelin Strategy & Research, more than 16.7 million Americans were affected by identity theft in 2018, incurring a financial loss of more than $16.8 billion.
The kind of information thieves are after includes bank account numbers, credit card numbers, social security numbers, medical records, passwords, and usernames. While it is impossible to completely remove the risk of identity theft, you can still take steps to protect yourself. Below you will find a list of things you can do to minimize the risk of having your identity stolen.
Use Strong Passwords
Passwords and PIN codes are the first layer of defense for protecting your private information. However, in order to leverage them properly, you need to use codes that are hard to crack or guess. For starters, you should avoid using names, addresses or birth dates of people familiar to you, as these are the first things a thief will try out. Ideally, your passwords should contain a combination of lower case and upper case letters, numerals, and special characters. Most importantly, never use the same password twice – in the event that one of your passwords gets compromised, you will want to minimize the damage as much as possible.
Enable Two-factor Authentication
Most banks, social media sites, and other third-party service providers that have access to your private information now offer what’s called two-factor authentication, or 2FA. 2FA works by adding an additional security check you need to pass whenever you try to access your account. This usually takes the form of a single-use code you need to provide in addition to your username and password. Codes can be sent to you via email, through a text message, or they can be generated by a physical gadget. With 2FA enabled, a thief wouldn’t be able to access your information, even if they managed to crack your password or PIN code.
Encrypt Your Data
While it may be impossible to make your information completely secure, what you can do is ensure that even if it gets stolen, the thieves won’t be able to do much with it. This is accomplished through encryption. Encryption works by scrambling your data by means of an algorithm. The only way to unscramble it is by using a private key, which only you have access to. Experienced software developers have ensured that most computers nowadays offer the option to encrypt and backup your data, which can be activated somewhere in the security settings. Encryption should also be used when transmitting information online – you should only be sharing sensitive information if the site you are using is certified with the HTTPS protocol.
Learn to Recognize Phishing Scams
Phishing is the practice of obtaining sensitive information from someone by pretending to be someone the target trust. It is usually carried out via email, and it involves redirecting the target a fake website where they are asked for some piece of sensitive information. The trick for avoiding phishing scams is to always verify whether the entity that’s trying to communicate with you is genuine or fake. If you have any sort of doubt, you should contact the person or company in question, and ask what is going on. Also, consider looking up a watchdog agency online, as they usually maintain a list of ongoing scams you should watch out for.
Be Cautious When Using Wi-Fi
Wireless networks are a common vector of attack for people trying to steal your information. If you connect online through an insecure Wi-Fi connection and start transmitting sensitive information, hackers can perform a ‘man in the middle’ attack, where they intercept the connection and pose as the entity at the other end of the line that you are trying to reach. To counteract this, never use public Wi-Fi to access your online banking account or other services that require you to send important personal information. At home, always make sure that your private Wi-Fi connection is protected by a password, and try to have it changed on a regular basis.
Dispose of Documents Properly
Even if you take steps to ensure the safety of your information online, you might still be vulnerable from within the real world. If you throw out old billing statements, or other documents containing personal information, you are setting yourself up for an attack from resourceful ‘dumpster divers’. Use a document shredder if you have one available when disposing of documents that might identify you. If one is not available, cut and tear the documents by hand. Also, never dispose of documents such as receipts in public, if you can help it.
Keep Your Personal Data Safe
Because we live in a society that is driven by information exchange, it is nearly impossible to completely protect yourself from identity theft. Nonetheless, if you take the appropriate precautionary measures such as the ones we outlined above, you can ensure that all but the most determined attempts at theft won’t affect you.