Anyone who says they can prevent identity theft is, to be polite, exaggerating. In a world where a hacker can walk off with a database of 100 million consumers, sometimes it’s just your turn. That’s true of all crime. No car alarm will guarantee that your wheels won’t get stolen.
But you can do things to improve your odds. You can avoid dark streets, pay for a garage, park under streetlights, keep nothing valuable in your car. That’s what this post is about. When it comes to your identity, what can you do to decrease the odds that you’ll get hit by a hacker?
1. Decrease Your Attack Surface Area
Security professionals talk about this all the time. The more doors there are to a building, the more places a criminal can break in. The more software and laptops a company has, the greater the chance a hacker will slip through. That’s true for you, too. The more accounts your have, the more places you enter your email address, the more checks you write, the greater the chances that some part of your digital life will end up in the hands of a hacker. You probably do things today you don’t realize that increase your attack surface area, such as applying for that tempting credit card offer at the checkout counter where a paper application may not be disposed of properly. That’s just providing another door for criminals to open. As an added bonus, the simpler your financial portfolio, the easier it will be to keep tabs on the bits and pieces of your digital life.
2. Check Online, All the Time
Tip #2 follows from tip #1. It’s incredibly important to keep tabs on your digital life because you are the only one who really has an interest in protecting it. That means you shouldn’t wait until the end of the month to check in on your checking accounts and credit cards. Sign up for free online access to your bank accounts and other accounts where it’s offered, then make a habit of checking in every few days to make sure things look normal. It only takes a few minutes. And before you think tip #2 contradicts tip #1 — opening all these online portals to your accounts increases your attack surface area — that’s not true. If you don’t use the online access to your account, a hacker might figure out how to log in instead, so you might as well.
3. Minimize Your Snail Mail
Despite all that you’ve heard about big credit card database hacks, about half of all identity theft is committed by people physically near you — co-workers, friends, family. And people who steal your mail. One of the simplest things you can do to shrink your attack surface is to keep bills, statements and other items out of your snail mailbox. Sign up for electronic statements and you’ll not only make your mailbox less inviting, you’ll make your recycling bin less inviting, too. And you won’t need to use that fancy shredder so often.
4. Use Better Passwords
You know you should eat better and exercise more, but sometimes you don’t. Passwords are like that. Studies show that somewhere between one-third and one-half of adults use the same or similar passwords for all their online accounts. That’s a big mistake. Why? The first thing any criminal will do after breaking into a tiny craft website or hockey fan bulletin board is take all those user names and passwords and try them at Amazon and Gmail. This method works for a shocking percentage of stolen IDs because so many people re-use passwords. That means your entire digital life is only as safe as the least safe site you’ve ever logged into. At a bare minimum, switch to using a family of passwords — very complex strings for critical sites, like banking, and simple passwords for sites that don’t contain other personal information. And change your passwords at least twice a year, preferably more frequently.
5. Hack Yourself
The pros call this “penetration testing.” Every six months or so, put on a black baseball hat and pretend you are a hacker. See what someone who knew you fairly well — say an angry former co-worker — could learn about you. Could someone who knew your birthday break into your Twitter account and embarrass you? Could they break into your iCloud account, see your pictures, and really embarrass you? Would they be able to transfer money out of your bank account? You should start with a computer that isn’t yours — so you aren’t fooled by automatic logins — and Google yourself, to make sure you understand what strangers can learn about you quickly. But go much further than that. Be creative. Think like a determined opponent. What could someone learn from your public Facebook page that might be used to determine you’ll be on vacation? Could a hacker learn what your school mascot is, or your first pet’s name, which could be useful when trying to trick a “forgot your password?” system? Thinking like a hacker is a great way to make sure you aren’t victimized by a hacker.
Honest computer security folks will tell you that the best antivirus software you can buy is a good backup. Nothing can keep your computer 100% safe from malware, so the real way to protect yourself is to have a great backup system in place, in case the only way to recover from a virus is to reset your machine and start over. That’s true for identity theft, too. Odds are, you’ll be a victim in the next five years. That means “recovery” is really more important than prevention. But you don’t have to wait until you are a victim to prepare for recovery. The ID theft version of having a good backup means you should know where all your critical financial records are, and make sure they aren’t only on a single computer hard drive that might fail. Know who you would call if your bank account was suddenly missing money, or if you got the sense that a criminal was abusing your identity. Check your credit scores regularly for big, unexpected changes that might be caused by someone maxing out your credit cards (you can see your scores for free on Credit.com). Check your homeowners’ insurance policy to see if you are already covered for loss from ID theft, or have access to free identity recovery assistance. Become familiar with the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center. Have a “break glass in case of emergency” plan, and you’ll rest easier. Hopefully, you’ll never have to use it, but you probably will.
More on Identity Theft:
- How Can You Tell If Your Identity Has Been Stolen?
- What Should I Do If I’m a Victim of Identity Theft?
- How Credit Impacts Your Day-to-Day Life