There’s nothing worse than being taken advantage of — whether it’s a vandalized car, home robbery or credit card fraud. It’s hard to deal with being violated while trying to figure out what was taken and how to recover or replace it. While most of us have measures in place, including alarms and insurance, to protect our homes, many of us do not have similar protections for our identity.
According to a 2018 survey by The Harris Poll, almost 60 million Americans have been victims of identity theft — up from 15 million in 2017. Identity theft can include everything from stolen credit card and bank information to phone and government fraud, which can wreak havoc not only on your finances, but also your credit and, even, social security.
While there is no 100 percent foolproof way to prevent identity theft, there are some protections you can set up to not just avoid, but also detect suspicious activities happening in your name.
Read on for some basics on how to prevent identity theft and what to do if you become a victim.
Protect your bank and credit card info
Credit card theft is one of the most common types of identity theft. Avoid using your credit and bank cards in suspicious ATMs or entering your credit card information on websites without SSL certificates (the https:// in the front of the URL.) Be sure to also set up alerts that monitor out-of-the-ordinary purchases. Immediately contact your credit card company and cancel cards if you notice any unauthorized activity.
Secure your passwords
Make sure your online passwords to your accounts (including email, bank and credit card accounts) are strong and changed often. The United States National Institute for Standards and Technology recommends that passwords be at least eight characters in length and avoid the use of personal information or common phrases. Passwords should also be changed every 90 days.
Should you believe your accounts have been hacked, change your passwords immediately and contact the companies associated with your compromised accounts.
Don’t do private business in public spaces
LifeLock.com recommends avoiding accessing your sensitive information in public places or on public Wi-Fi networks. “Coffee-shop Wi-Fi passwords are easy to come by,” reports the site. “With the right tools, a cyber thief on the same network could follow your online moves and capture everything from your login credentials to the credit card information you type in while shopping.
Avoid email phishing and other clickbait
Email phishing has gotten way more sophisticated than in previous years. You may not fall for the Nigerian prince who needs funds wired right away, but a cleverly masked email asking you to update your Google password or input your Social Security number could give hackers easy access to your most personal information and accounts.
Before clicking on links or downloading files from unsolicited emails, be sure to check out the sender’s original email address and pay attention to the website address. When in doubt, call the company directly.
This may seem rather old school, but many of us still receive banking and credit statements and other financial communications via mail. Given that, getting your information stolen out of your trash is a real thing and can easily be avoided by shredding/ripping up documents before recycling.
Monitor credit reports
For starters, know what’s on your credit report. You can request a free copy every 12 months from all three major companies by visiting www.annualcreditreport.com.
Next, monitor changes and inquiries on your credit reports monthly from all three agencies (Experian, Equifax, Transunion). For many, it may be months before they know their accounts have been hacked. If anything looks suspicious, immediately place a fraud alert on your account and dispute any unauthorized activity.
If you do happen to become one of millions of victims of identity theft, be sure to also contact the Federal Trade Commission at 877-ID THEFT (877-438-4338) to file a theft report as well as file a police report. If your Social Security card information has been stolen, be sure to also contact Social Security Administration and the IRS. While filing won’t be an automatic fix against the theft, these reports will help in you disputing fraudulent activities and credit recovery.
These are just a few ways to prevent and respond to identity theft. The most important step is to simply be aware of activities on your accounts and act fast if anything looks off. The quicker you respond, the less damage and the faster you can recover.
Stephenetta Harmon is a Black beauty editor, curator, and digital media and communications expert who builds platforms to celebrate the power, impact, and business of Black beauty. She is the former EIC for Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (2018-19) and current host of MSR Forefront, a digital roundtable series. She is the founder of Sadiaa Black Beauty Guide, the premier directory dedicated to Black-owned hair and beauty businesses. Find her at stephenetta.com.