More than 16 million people in the United States were victims of identity theft in 2012, according to the Department of Justice. But identity theft isn’t inescapable, according to local finance experts.
“Identity theft is a huge industry, because it works,” says Moneta Group principal Patrick McGinnis. “People don’t pay attention. I think online banking is great, but you’ve got to be aware of what’s going on.”
McGinnis says there are signs to look for when banking and shopping online. Secure web pages will show a small padlock icon in the URL, which will also change from http to https. Depending on what browser is used, part of the URL also might appear green. Users should be wary of entering personal information into any websites without these signals.
It’s also important to be careful where you choose to shop and bank on the internet. McGinnis advises customers not to check their bank accounts or shop online using public computers, and to lock office computers when away from their desk at work.
Identity thieves can also use information found on social media to hack into bank and credit card accounts. “If you forget your password, reset it,” McGinnis says. “They ask you a few questions, like Where did you go to high school? What’s your dog’s name? What’s your kid’s name? If you have a Facebook account, I can find it and be able to tell where you went to high school and what your dog’s name is, and I’ll be able to reset your password and log into your account.” McGinnis recommends making social media accounts as private as possible, and choosing tricky security questions.
But fraud doesn’t just happen online. David Presson, senior VP and director of investments at First Bank, warns against giving out information to unsolicited phone calls. “Ask who they are, what they want and what organization they’re with, and say you’ll call them back,” Presson says. “Then look up their phone number and initiate the call, instead of responding to a random call.” The same goes for emails from banks and credit card companies asking to update your information. “These emails look extremely real and authentic. Essentially what they’re doing is stealing your information. Don’t click the link, go to the website yourself. It will usually tell you if you need to do something.”
Knowing when it is and isn’t safe to give out personal information also is an important part of identity theft prevention. Chris Thetford of the Better Business Bureau says it’s OK to give out a social security number to government agencies, when filing an application for credit or while in the process of getting hired by a company. Banks and government agencies will never ask for social security numbers by email, so an email asking for one always is a red flag, he says.
McGinnis, Presson and Thetford all agree that one of the best and easiest ways for consumers to protect themselves is to closely monitor their accounts. Cardholders should check their credit and debit card transactions every few days to a week, either online or on the phone, searching for any fraudulent charges. Thetford says everyone should also check their credit report annually at annualcreditreport.com, to make sure no one else has opened lines of credit in their name. Parents also can call the credit bureaus and place freezes on their childrens’ credit, to prevent criminals from opening cards in their name.
Though technology continues to pose new ways for criminals to obtain personal information and steal identities, it also provides solutions and ways for consumers to protect themselves. Presson recommends LifeLock, a service that works to prevent credit fraud and identity theft. For a safe way to store passwords, McGinnis suggests 1Password, an app that generates strong passwords and stores them with one master password. McGinnis also recommends that Apple users install Find My iPhone, so that if their gadgets are lost or stolen, the owners can lock the items and erase any sensitive data.
Consumers also can get free, valuable information on the Better Business Bureau’s website (stlouis.bbb.org), or by calling the BBB at 645-3300 for help with any identity theft situation.