The rise in technology and social media has given identity thieves an inroad to your finances. Young people—who grew up around and are more trusting of tech—are especially at risk of getting their identities stolen. Here, Eric Tyson, MBA, and author of the new book Personal Finance in Your 20s and 30s For Dummies, offers nine tips to help you avoid having it happen to you.
Every day it seems like there’s news about a new scam or scheme allowing hackers to steal your personal information. Yes, this onslaught of bad news is alarming, but it serves a useful purpose: It reminds you that identity theft can happen to anyone—especially if you’re young. A study by Javelin Strategy & Research found that young adults are at significantly greater risk for identity theft than people in other age groups. And financial expert and best-selling author Eric Tyson, MBA, says this fact alone is reason enough to take preventive action.
“Advances in technology and the rise of social media have changed how identity thieves obtain sensitive information,” says Tyson, author of Personal Finance in Your 20s & 30s For Dummies® (Wiley, 2017, ISBN: 978-1-119-43141-1, $19.99). “That means if you’re a young person, you’re at greater risk than ever before, and burying your head in the sand only increases your chances of falling victim to this type of crime.”
Tyson explains that social networking websites—popular among millennials—promote the sharing of personal information, thereby posing a greater risk for their users. This same group is also more likely to experience friendly fraud, in which the perpetrator knows the victim firsthand. Finally, younger people are less likely to closely monitor their accounts and credit reports, meaning they detect fraud much later than their older counterparts.
Tyson says you must be proactive in preventing your personal information and accounts (bank, investment, credit, and debit) from being accessed for identity theft and fraud.
“I speak from personal experience,” he explains. “The first time it happened to me was in my late 20s when a crook withdrew money from my checking account by using personal information that was stolen from my wife’s employer’s payroll department. This is but one of many ways you can fall victim to identity theft. In other cases, someone might open an account, such as a credit card, using someone’s stolen personal information.”
Typically, he says, cases of identity theft create some short-term hassle and costs. But in some situations, the consequences can be long-term and costly. Victims of identity theft can suffer trashed credit reports, reduced ability to qualify for loans and even jobs (with employers who check credit reports), out-of-pocket costs, and numerous hours of time to clean up the mess.
As scary as identity theft can be, Tyson says there are several things you can do to protect yourself. Follow these nine tips to greatly reduce your chances of falling victim to identity theft:
Don’t share your personal information over the phone. Unless you initiated the call and you well know the company or person on the other end of the line, you should never respond to requests for personal information (such as your Social Security number, credit card account number, address, passwords, etc.). Also, be suspicious of incoming calls that your caller ID identifies as coming from a certain business, because scammers have now found ways to trick caller ID systems. Unless you recognize the number, let the call go to voicemail.
“Suppose you get a call from someone saying he is with Chase credit card services and is calling about a problem with your credit card account,” says Tyson. “If you have an account with Chase, ask the caller to provide you with his contact information and name. End the call; then get out your credit card, call the phone number listed on the back of your card, and ask the representative you speak with to verify whether the call you received was legitimate or not.”
Steer clear of emails seeking personal information or action. Phishing is a growing problem and one you’ve probably heard of before. Online scammers continue to get more creative and harder to detect all the time. To extract sensitive information from you, they can generate an email address (or even a text message) that looks like it comes from someone you know or a trusted institution. This information could include passwords, usernames, credit card information, and bank account details. If you click on the link provided in their message and then give them the requested information, you will likely be the victim of identity theft.
“My best advice to avoid phishing scams is to never click on links in emails,” shares Tyson. “Access your online accounts only by typing in the website’s URL yourself or by using your own created bookmarks. If you’re unsure a message is legitimate, you can always reach out to the person or institution and check. But don’t reply to the actual email—find another way to contact them, such as via telephone.”
Pay attention to your monthly financial statements. Your financial institutions may alert you if they notice any unusual activity on your accounts. However, every month you should take some time to review the transactions in your credit card, checking account, and other financial accounts. Don’t take for granted that your financial institutions will catch everything. Look over the activity to make sure all the transactions are yours. Many people have discovered suspicious activity by doing this simple monthly task.
“A good way to simplify this process is by closing unnecessary accounts,” explains Tyson. “The more credit cards and credit lines you have, the more likely you are to have problems with identity theft and to overspend and carry debt balances. Unless you maintain a separate card for small business transactions (or carry an extra card or two due to the rewards those cards offer you), you really need only one piece of plastic with a Visa or MasterCard logo.”
Periodically check your credit reports. A number of people have found out about credit accounts opened in their name by reviewing their credit reports. Each of the three major credit agencies is required to provide you with a free credit report each year. So you could review one report every four months to keep tabs on your reports—without having to pay.
“Is it necessary to review your credit reports that frequently, and do I personally do this?” says Tyson. “The answer to both of those questions is no! But, you may want to scrutinize your reports that often if you’ve had problems or otherwise have reason to be concerned about the security and integrity of your credit.”
Freeze your credit reports. Many states allow consumers to freeze their credit information (usually for a small fee). Why might you want to do this? Freezing your credit information puts you in complete control of who may gain access to your report. But, be aware that this also means you have to give permission every time someone wants to examine your report (unless you place a temporary thaw on your account).
Avoid placing personal information on checks. Information that you shouldn’t put on your checks includes your driver’s license number, Social Security number, and credit card account number. This type of information can be useful to identity thieves. Tyson also encourages leaving off your home address. Remember that everyone whose hands your check passes through gets free access to that information.
“When writing a check, be cautious of anyone asking you to add personal information to the check,” says Tyson. “Question the need for adding the personal information and know that in numerous states, it’s against the law to request and place credit card numbers on checks. Use a debit card instead for such transactions.”
Safeguard your computer and other devices. Most of us have financial and personal data on our computer we wouldn’t want others having access to. Use up-to-date virus protection software and a firewall. Also, don’t forget to password protect your programs and files. (You probably know this, but don’t use obvious or simple passwords such as birthdates, names, addresses, and simple number combinations like “1234.”)
“Is the internet connection you’re using secure?” asks Tyson. “Try to avoid accessing personal accounts on public networks—especially those that have no security protection. And be cautious of using your cellphone to log in to your accounts as well.”
Be aware of what information you’re sharing with the (social media) world. Most millennials use social media websites and apps to communicate. And these sites promote the sharing of information. Stay alert to what personal information you may be putting out there for others to see. Before sharing personal details, ask yourself if you would be comfortable with strangers knowing this particular information. If the answer is no, you may want to rethink giving it out.
Also, Tyson urges you to take note of what information your apps and social websites are collecting from you. Many people are unaware of how much information websites and apps glean from you. For example, certain apps on your cellphone (like Facebook), can keep track of your location and have access to your camera and the contacts stored on your phone. Think about what information is necessary for the site to have. Many of these sites will allow you to go into your settings and turn off their access to some information.
Protect your snail mail. Most young people are accustomed to doing most tasks online, so many focus on protecting only their digital information. But stealing postal mail is still a common way identity thieves get hold of your personal information. Stealing postal mail is pretty easy, especially from a curbside mailbox.
“To protect your mail from theft, consider using a locked mailbox or a post-office box,” advises Tyson. “Or eliminate mail delivery of paper copies by having your statements sent to you via email or accessing them online. Also, you may want to get a shredder for any documents you want to dispose of.”
“Having your identity stolen and then going through the recovery process is a huge hassle, but it’s one that can be avoided,” concludes Tyson. “Once you realize how vulnerable you really are, it’s easy to take the extra steps to safeguard your information. Protect yourself today and you’ll be far less likely to lose your money and get stuck cleaning up the mess.”
About the Author:
Eric Tyson, MBA, is an internationally acclaimed and best-selling personal finance author, counselor, and writer. He is the author of five national best-selling financial books includingInvesting For Dummies, Personal Finance For Dummies, and Home Buying Kit For Dummies. He has appeared on NBC’s Today show, ABC, CNBC, FOX News, PBS, and CNN, and has been interviewed on hundreds of radio shows and print publications.
About the Book:
Personal Finance in Your 20s & 30s For Dummies® (Wiley, 2017, ISBN: 978-1-119-43141-1, $19.99) is available at bookstores nationwide, from major online booksellers, and direct from the publisher by calling 800-225-5945. In Canada, call 800-567-4797. For more information, please visit the book’s page on www.wiley.com.