By Whitney Rhyne, MS
Associate Financial Planner
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the number of identity theft cases has increased to 9.9 million per year! (1) The recent IRS and Office of Personnel Management (OPM) breaches are proving that identity theft can happen to anyone.
In a story that hits a little closer to home, a Priceville woman recently reported a random caller accusing her of asking for money, when in fact, they were scamming her into providing her personal information. Protecting your personal information and monitoring your accounts is a necessity to help avoid identity theft.
Below are 9 steps for you to consider:
1. Request a free credit report every 4 months. Experian, Equifax and Trans Union allow for one free credit report each year. These can be requested online or by phone. You can order a free annual report from all three bureaus online at www.annualcreditreport.com.
2. Create strong and unique passwords. This includes passwords on personal computers, cell phones, and all types of online accounts, including email accounts, bank accounts, and social media. Ensure you are using a random mix of numbers, letters, and symbols. You should consider changing these passwords every 90 days. There are several online tools that can help generate random passwords.
There are online and offline ways to store passwords, including online options and smartphone apps such as LastPass or something as simple as an encrypted Excel spreadsheet or a written list placed in a safe place. Also, consider increasing the 4-digit password on your cell phone to a 6, 8 or even 10 characters.
3. Protect your key personal and financial information. This includes Social Security numbers, account numbers, credit card numbers, PIN numbers and different forms of photo identification. Shred your credit card statements, bank statements, and any documents with important personal and financial identification. If you plan to be away from home for an extended period, place a hold on your mail by visiting https://holdmail.usps.com/holdmail/.
4. Review your monthly bills, credit card and bank statements carefully and frequently. Make sure your bills are arriving on time and that there is no suspicious activity on your credit cards by checking your statements and account balances.
5. Do not open unexpected email attachments from unknown sources or give our personal information over a phone call you did not initiate. If someone asks for personal information on the phone, ask for their name, employee or badge number, and a call back number. Do not call back at the number provided; rather, look up the appropriate call back number for the company or agency they claim to represent.
6. Eliminate phone calls and unwanted mail. To be placed on the Do Not Call List, you can register your phone via the National Do Not Call Registry. You can also be opt-out of pre-approved credit offers by phone at 1-888-567-8688 or online at optoutprescreen.com.
7. Protect your personal information-on your computer, on your phone and in your home. When downloading software, make sure it is from a website that you trust. Update your anti-virus and firewall software regularly. Ensure that you are using a secure wireless network in your home and in public. It is safer to use your provider’s network than the free Wi-Fi at the coffee shop. When online shopping, make sure you are buying from a trustworthy website.
8. Have a plan if your device is stolen. On many smart phones and some computers, you can enable a setting to find your device online if it were to be lost or stolen. This could give you the option to remotely lock or wipe your device if you desire.
9. Teach your children about internet safety and what information is appropriate to be shared. By monitoring your children’s internet access, you can prevent your family’s private information from slipping through the cracks. For social media, remind them that setting your profile to private and not revealing excessive personal information can help to keep them safe online.
While completely avoiding the risk of identity theft may not be possible, these are steps to take to reduce the risk. If you suspect you may be a victim of identity theft, a list steps to follow can be found via the Federal Trade Commission’s sponsored website.
Whitney Rhyne is a part of the planning team at Longview Financial Advisors in Huntsville, Alabama. She holds a Masters in Financial Planning from the University of Alabama. Whitney can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org