Whether it’s Target’s data breach to the tune of 40 million stolen credit card numbers, Russian hackers stealing 1.2 billion usernames and passwords or the Heartbleed bug, there are plenty of thieves working to steal valuable information online.
Depending on what information is compromised, thieves can ring up fraudulent charges on credit cards, gain access to your email or bank accounts, apply for credit in your name or steal your identity altogether. Or they could simply sell your identity to other criminals for as little as $25.
Follow Good Security Practices When Online
Approximately 15 million people in the U.S. have their identities used fraudulently each year. Reduce your chances of becoming a victim by following these tips:
- Use strong passwords and don’t duplicate passwords over multiple accounts. Avoid making your password anything that is readily available on social media, such as your street name or the name of your children or pets. Password managers such as LastPass can help you generate strong passwords automatically and keep them secure for free.
- Most people won’t click on links or attachments in emails from people they don’t know, but you should also be wary of strange links from friends and family. It could mean the person’s email has been hacked or their computer has become part of a botnet.
- Most businesses and government agencies will not ask you to verify personal or financial information via email – this is usually a phishing scam. Instead, call the company’s customer service hotline or visit their website for more information. You can also check out Scam Alerts at the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) website to learn about recent scams.
- Watch out for apps or programs, especially those advertised in pop-ups, that promise to clean viruses from your computer or make it run faster. Research these programs online first, or download these tools from reputable sites such as CNET.
- Don’t use unencrypted public WiFi networks to do online shopping or banking – thieves can easily grab your login information and other personal data. Most free WiFi at coffee shops, airports or other public places is not encrypted. The “lock” icon in the bottom right of your computer’s web browser shows whether your connection is encrypted.
What to Do If Your Information or Identity Is Stolen
Even if you’re careful, events out of your control, such as the recent breach of 30 million healthcare records, may expose your personal or financial data. Often these breaches don’t become public knowledge for weeks or months, so keeping a watchful eye on your accounts can give you early warning.
Monitor your financial accounts both online and with mailed statements – some people even use money management tools like Mint to see all their accounts in one place. Monitor your credit report through www.annualcreditreport.com, which provides up to three free reports a year.
If you notice any unfamiliar or unauthorized charges, contact your bank and credit card company immediately. They should cancel your affected cards and issue you new ones. Notifying them right away helps ensure you won’t be held responsible for fraudulent charges. If you’ve shopped at a company that’s recently been part of a data breach, pay special attention to your accounts or contact your bank to ask about being issued new cards.
Not all instances of identity theft affect your bank accounts and credit cards. Here are some other signs your personal information might have been stolen:
- You stop getting bills or other mail you normally receive.
- You get calls from collection agencies about debts that aren’t yours.
- You get bills for medical services you didn’t receive or conditions you don’t have.
- You find out more than one tax return was filed in your name or the IRS claims you have income from an employer you don’t work for.
For more information on what do about if your identity is stolen, read the FTC’s Guide for Assisting Identity Theft Victims. If your identity is stolen and you need further guidance, contact the Identity Theft Resources Center, a non-profit dedicated to providing free assistance to victims.