Online Identity Theft Protection
So many details of your life live online. Unfortunately, this means that identity thieves can easily access your personal information. The evermore interconnected internet is a threat to your personal data, your money, and your credit score. Don’t let that scare you into avoiding the web altogether. Arm yourself with knowledge of the tactics identity thieves use to ensure that you are protected from online identity theft.
The Definition of Identity Theft
The first step of protecting your online identity is learning what identity theft really means. When someone steals your information for their own personal gain, that is identity theft. They could make credit card purchases, file medical insurance claims, open bank accounts and more, all under your name. This can severely hurt your credit score, damage your reputation, and/or drain your bank account.
Identity theft is incredibly common. Javelin Strategy & Research reported that 16.7 million people were affected by identity theft in 2017. In addition, 18% of identity theft in 2017 began with an online point of contact through a website or email. If those numbers concern you, you aren’t the only one. Experian conducted a survey in 2017 that found that 73% of consumers are worried about their social media, bank accounts, and emails being hacked.
How Identity Theft Happens Online
When almost three-quarters of consumers worry about online identity theft, it’s obviously a prevalent issue. Yet, how much do you really know about how identity theft happens online? People don’t want to be “hacked,” but don’t always understand how they could get hacked in the first place. The best way to explain is through examples of identity theft online.
One common form of online identity theft is spoofing. Spoofing happens when a thief creates a fake website or email address to trick you into either clicking a link that will install malware onto your computer or freely giving away personal details. These spoofed email addresses will send you phishing emails that look like they are important or from someone you know, but really contain links that will install malware to collect your information. Another trick identity thieves use is pharming. This happens when thieves hack your browser. You type in a legitimate website address, but it leads you to a spoofed website.
Malware stands for “malicious software,” and is downloaded onto your computer through spoofed websites or clicked links in scam emails. It gathers your personal information and sends it to an identity thief. Malware also includes spyware, which can literally spy on all of the activity you engage in on your computer. Other ways your identity can be stolen online include unsecured websites and unsecured internet connections. Websites that start with “http” and not “https” are not as safe. Similarly, public internet connections are not as safe as their password-protected counterparts.
Your personal information can also be stolen if there is a data breach at a company you have done business with in the past. For example, a data breach at Target caused over 43 million customers to have their information stolen. This may seem out of your control, but another cause of identity theft online definitely isn’t: weak passwords. It’s tempting, but try not to use the same password for everything or choose something too simple. Clever identity thieves will see right through you.
Warning: Kids and seniors are more at risk!
Identity theft can also happen when kids and seniors are left to surf the web without any guidelines. These groups are the most vulnerable to identity theft because of their lack of knowledge of internet scams. If a new window pops up and tells a child they have just won $100,000, there’s a good chance a child will believe it and click the button to “claim their prize,” which turns out to be some nasty malware. A senior may click a link from an email that says it’s from their child, but it’s really a phishing email hoping to bait its next spyware victim.
Preventing Online Identity Theft
With so many tools to choose from, thieves have quite the advantage when trying to steal your information online. However, there are some measures you can take to avoid online identity theft:
- Choose strong passwords for online accounts. Sure, you remember simple passwords more easily. But it isn’t worth the cost of identity theft.
- Update your passwords every few months. They are harder to hack if they’re always changing.
- Use firewalls and antivirus software. Also, don’t put off updating it!
- Stay skeptical about your emails. If something doesn’t feel right about an email, the address may be spoofed.
- Don’t click on suspicious links. Phishers use them to scam you.
- Make sure the websites you use – especially the ones that ask for personal information – start with “https,” not “http.”
- Be cautious about public computers. You have no idea what kind of spyware or malware could be installed.
- Review your bank and credit card statements to ensure there aren’t any fraudulent withdrawals or charges.
- If you are downloading software online, check the security of the website. A scammer could have attached malware to the download.
- Don’t fall for popups claiming that you’ve won something or you can enter a contest. They are almost always fake.
- Check your online accounts to see if any personal information has been altered without your knowledge.
- Delete emails marked as spam immediately.
- Freeze your accounts if a bank or company you work with has experienced a data breach.
- Stay informed. Even if you follow all of these tips, identity thieves’ methods are constantly evolving.
How to Check if You’re the Victim of Online Identity Theft
It’s difficult enough to defend yourself against identity theft, but how do you know when your identity has been stolen? Sometimes, it’s difficult to notice. 16% of people surveyed in Identity Theft Research Center’s 2017 Aftermath study didn’t find out their identity had been stolen for three years. The good news is that the majority find out within only three months, but it remains imperative for you to stay on the lookout for online identity theft.
A simple way to tell if you are a victim of identity theft is whether or not the IRS notifies you. If that doesn’t happen, but you find unauthorized accounts under your name, you are likely a victim. Other signs of identity theft include unfamiliar withdrawals from your bank accounts, credit card charges you don’t remember making, insurance claims you never filed, or mail about a debt you never owed.
How to Report Identity Theft Online
Once you figure out that someone stole your identity online, you need to report it. The first thing you need to do is go to IdentityTheft.gov, which is run by the Federal Trade Commission. When you submit your story on their site, they will send you a plan that will guide you through the process of reclaiming your identity. This will make the tasks ahead much easier to deal with.
One of these steps will be calling the companies where the identity theft occurred. For example, if you see unauthorized withdrawals from your bank accounts, call your bank and notify them. Do this for every company affected by the theft. Then you can put a fraud alert on your credit report and request a copy. It’s also important to file a report with your local police department.
The last step? Take care of yourself. The Aftermath study also showed that 53% of those surveyed “felt a sense of powerlessness or helplessness” following their incident of identity theft. 7% even reported feeling suicidal. Though online identity theft is obviously a stressful situation to deal with, you will get through it.
Article last modified on August 8, 2019. Published by Debt.com, LLC