Identity Theft in the Modern Age: How to Keep Your Finances Safe Online

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A rash of identity thefts has made the headlines in recent weeks, revealing the importance of keeping your personal information secure.

Stories of identity theft have been making a great many headlines recently. Most notably, Target Corporation has found itself in hot waters over the compromising of tens of millions of credit cards, as well as millions more pieces of personal information.

More recently, a Rockville Centre woman was sentenced to prison for using Craigslist to post fake job and apartment advertisements, then stealing the personal information of victims and using it to apply for fraudulent state income tax returns and bank loans. Earlier this month, PSEG sent out a warning to its new Long Island customers that a phishing scam was being used to defraud individuals by a person pretending to represent the utility company and requesting personal info.

The ID theft and phishing phenomenon is hardly new. In August, Governor Cuomo released a statement alerting parents to a rising wave of child identity theft, noting that children are now 51 times more likely to have their IDs stolen and credit lines fraudulently opened in their names than are adults. April saw an Old Brookville woman sentenced to 12 years for a $10 million Medicare and HIPPA scam, and there were countless other incidents before that.

With so many scammers, thieves, and others trying to abuse the credit and finances of unsuspecting victims it is important to be wary of untrustworthy individuals and websites, and to use caution when transmitting sensitive information over the web. Following these tips could go a long way to keeping yourself and your family safe from fraud:

Be Careful on the Internet

  • Use secure and varied passwords. Try not to use the same word or phrase for every account, and remember that longer passwords with numbers, upper and lower case letters, and other varied characters are harder to crack than short, simple ones.
  • Don’t visit disreputable or untrustworthy websites, and make sure you’re on the website you mean to be. Scammers will sometimes create phony websites with URLs similar to those of popular sites in hopes of capitalizing on people who entered the wrong web address into their browsers, and steal credit cards from online shoppers.
  • Don’t download files from unfamiliar websites or email addresses. This is one of the easiest ways for Trojans to sneak their way onto computers.
  • Be cautious about clicking hyperlinks in unsolicited messages—it’s another easy way for email scammers to direct you to harmful websites.
  • Install a firewall and antivirus software on your computer, and run scans regularly. If you believe you’ve caught a virus don’t access any sensitive information (email, banking websites, etc.) from that computer until you’ve gotten rid of the malicious software.

Use Caution When Banking Online
Online and mobile banking is a great convenience, offering the ability to keep track of your finances, transfer funds, and even deposit checks no matter where you are, but it comes with the risk of having your account information regularly transferred over the web. If you’re going to bank online, be sure not to expose yourself to any potential threats.

  • Never send sensitive information such as credit card, social security, or account numbers via email or text.
  • Don’t access your bank’s website or app while on an unfamiliar or unknown wireless connection. Thieves can set up public WiFi hotspots in popular places and use them to peek in on the activity of anyone using the connection.
  • Check your balance frequently. Looking at current statements isn’t just a great way to keep track of your account balances and keep your spending in check; it’s a simple and practical method for spotting unauthorized and fraudulent charges.
  • Shred trash containing personal information. Physical mail can be just as hazardous to your security as email, so make sure you’re shredding paper bank statements and similar documents before discarding them.

Report Suspicious Activity Immediately

  • If you believe your Social Security number has been compromised you can contact the Social Security Administration online or call their fraud line at 1-800-269-0271.
  • Call your bank the moment you realize you’ve lost your credit/debit card. Putting a hold on the account or even cancelling the card will prevent thieves from using it if it has been stolen.
  • Likewise, you should report suspicious charges and withdrawals you don’t remember making as soon as you notice them. Even small fraudulent charges can be a sign of greater problems to come.
  • Monitor your credit. Each of the three major credit reporting agencies (Experian, Equifax, TransUnion) is required under federal law to provide you with a free credit report every year. If you use all three, you can get a free report once every four months.
  • Statements received for unfamiliar accounts, new credit cards you did not open, and collection notices for debt you don’t owe are likely indicators that someone has stolen your identity.
  • Similarly, errors on your credit report, being denied for a card when you have good credit, and missing mail or email could be signs of identity theft.

Keep Your Children Safe

  • Monitor your children’s internet activity, and talk to them about the importance of being safe online.
  • Be Aware of any suspicious mail or email sent to your child. If your kid receives a pre-approved credit card, contact the bank and inquire as to why it was sent.
  • Be careful when sharing your child’s personal info, especially his/her social security number. Parents are less likely to monitor their child’s credit than their own, making children prime targets for scammers to use in creating false IDs and opening fraudulent credit lines that could go undetected for years.
  • Obtain a credit report for your children in the same way you would for yourself. Is any activity is detected, report it immediately.

[Source: Governor Cuomo]
Video courtesy of the Federal Trade Commission. 

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