How to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft, According to Experts
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Because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, most people have been trying to protect themselves in a number of ways, whether it's by making sure they're financially stable in case of layoffs or wearing personal protective equipment. But what if I told you there's more one thing you should add to your list that's been left off the radar? That thing is protecting yourself from identity theft.
As a 26-year-old woman, I thought I was doing my best by making sure I never gave my Social Security number out over the phone and keeping close track of my credit card and debit card at all times. But after being notified by a Mazuma Credit Union in Kansas City, MO, that someone was using my Social Security number online to open up banking and loan accounts, it was a huge wake-up call that my identity was not as secure as I thought.
However, the more I did my research, the more I learned that, due to COVID-19, identity theft has been on the rise. With over 36 million Americans filing for unemployment, it’s only fair to say that during these harsh and oftentimes lonely moments, desperate times are calling for desperate measures because of the pandemic.
According to a study in 2019 from Javelin Strategy & Research, identity theft reached 16.9 billion dollars. And while identity theft was initially on the decline in 2019, 2020 has presented a whole new kind of ballpark. With the fear of the pandemic fresh in everyone’s minds, fraudsters have had new opportunities to scam innocent people thanks to an increase in shopping online, working from home, and receiving stimulus checks. In Arizona, for instance, more than 251 cases of unemployment fraud have already been confirmed, meaning taxpayers' dollars are going into the wrong hands. Brett Bezio, spokesperson for the Division of Employment Security (DES), explained that 5,000 more cases—by fraudsters gathering info from phishing scams or data breaches—are under review.
Washington State’s Emergency Management Division even released a statement of their own advising citizens to protect themselves, saying: “Identity theft is on the rise, with people filing false claims, loans, and credit cards to steal people’s lives. During these times of COVID-19, accessing your credit is important.”
From one friendly voice on the internet to another, here is some helpful advice I wish I had known about before my life became another name on the dark web.
Immediately take action
One of the worst things you can do is wait to report a stolen credit card. As soon as you realize that one of your debit or credit cards may be missing, report it. This will help limit your liability of a fraudulent charge. When your credit card has gone missing, contact your banking institution immediately and let them know it's been stolen. Most banks now offer this service through your mobile banking app, so you can quickly report if you’re on the go. After you report it, they will then cancel the card and send you a new one.
Monitor your credit
While it's easy to get caught up in your day-to-day life, it's important to check your credit score. Monitoring your credit report is one of the fastest ways to spot unauthorized charges and credit hits on the spot. And due to the impacts of COVID-19, all three of the major credit bureaus (TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax) will be offering free weekly credit reports through April 2021. However, most credit card companies also include credit checks within their own banking systems, so if for whatever reason you don't want to use the three credit bureaus, you can easily check your current credit score by simply logging into your credit card account online.
Freeze your credit
If you want to take the extra step in protecting your credit score, you want to consider freezing your credit account. When you freeze your account, you're limiting others, like lenders, from viewing and accessing your credit report. According to Experian, you'll need to file a credit freeze request with all three major credit bureaus—which are Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion—for it to go into effect. Once you begin the process, you'll need to answer a few questions and provide your Social Security number, a copy of your photo ID, and a bill with your address as proof of residence. While there is no fee to freeze your credit, do keep in mind that you'll need to unfreeze it before you apply for credit, try to buy a home, or rent a new apartment.
However, even if you haven’t fallen victim to identity theft, Robert Siciliano, chief security architect of ProtectNow, says that temporarily freezing your credit as a preventative measure is a safe bet to protect yourself against fraud. “If you are a person who has had their identity stolen, you should freeze your credit. If you have a Social Security number, you are a target. You can make your Social Security number useless to the thief by freezing your credit,” he says.
Place another security freeze with ChexSystems
ChexSystems is a verification service that is used to verify those who are opening up bank accounts. Most banks and credit unions use ChexSystems to help screen new customers during the application process. So, by freezing this, it helps stop fraudsters from opening up new accounts in your name.
Shred your personal information
While you want to call the credit bureaus ASAP if you're a victim of credit fraud, you also want to make sure that you take precautions at home. Invest in a shredder to shred mail that shows your personal information on it, including utility bills and credit card applications—basically anything with your address and name. That way when you take the garbage out to your trash can, you know that no one can piece together your info. Cybersecurity professional Greg Scott adds, “When credit cards expire, cut them up and throw the pieces into separate garbage cans.” While this may be tedious, it's a good extra step to take to prevent fraudsters from having access to all of your info in one garbage bag.
Check your mail
This may sound like a no-brainer, but sometimes tossing out that random mail you assume is nothing important isn’t a good call. Believe me, I used to be that person who just threw everything in the shredder until I began getting an abundance of letters from banks and lending companies saying that my information has been used to open accounts.
Andrew Roderick, CEO of Credit Repair Companies, suggests being vigilant when checking your mail. “If you do come across something you're not sure of, speak with the sender. This is a quick way to find out if someone is using your address as their own. Because we're all doing most of our transactions online, it's best you keep a diary of expenses. It's very easy to miss a few small transactions, but these can soon add up," he says.