By Richard A. McGrath, CIC, LIA
With the holiday season right around the corner, the last thing you’re likely worrying about is your identity being stolen. But before you get caught up in the rush, let’s take a moment to look at how serious an issue identity theft has become. In 2015, $15 billion was stolen from 13.1 million U.S. consumers, according to the 2016 Identity Fraud Study released by Javelin Strategy & Research. The study also found that the number of reported identity fraud victims was at its second highest in the last six years.
Identity theft continues to be a common and growing problem for consumers, especially around the holidays. Criminals take advantage of the fact that people are at their busiest and more distracted this time of year, putting your identity at a higher risk. Whether you are shopping in store or online, there are certain measures you can take to help protect your identity all year round.
Pay the safest way. Credit cards are the safest way to shop online because suspicious charges can easily be disputed. Reserve one card for all online transactions and carefully review your statement each month. When making in store purchases, pay with a credit or debit card that uses EMV chip technology. Chip cards are more difficult to counterfeit than cards with magnetic strips because the information is encrypted. Mobile payment options, such as Apple Pay or Android Pay, are another secure way to pay in store.
Secure your phone. Mobile devices are widely used by consumers. Since they are more frequently being used for financial services such as mobile pay, fraudsters are increasingly looking to target these devices. To protect your smartphone or tablet, be sure to install software updates as soon as they become available. Lock your phone with built-in security capabilities such as a passcode or biometric reading. Also, be sure to utilize your phone’s ability to encrypt data and remotely wipe its contents if stolen.
Use strong passwords. Weak passwords continue to be the entry point of choice among hackers and cybercriminals. When your email gets hacked, it can lead to your other accounts and sensitive information being compromised. Avoid using passwords that are based on personal information such as your birthday, Social Security number, phone number, or a family member’s name. Strong passwords contain upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols. Also, make sure your passwords are unique to each account. A password manager can help manage your passwords without having to write them down.
Monitor your credit. Everyone is granted a free copy of their credit report annually from each of the three credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. You can get your free report by visiting www.annualcreditreport.com. This allows you to check for fraudulent activity using your identity. Additionally, most credit card companies provide free access to your FICO score; you can also get a free credit summary once a month from www.credit.com.
What should I do if my identity is stolen?
- Contact the companies where you know fraud occurred. Call the fraud department and notify them that someone has stolen your identity. Ask them to close or freeze the account, and change your account logins, passwords, and PINS.
- File a fraud alert and get your credit report. Contact one of the credit bureaus and place a free, 90-day fraud alert on your file. By law, the credit bureau you contact is required to notify the other two about the alert. You should also obtain a copy of your credit report at this time.
- Report the identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Complete the online form at www.identitytheft.gov or call 1-877-438-4338 and include as much detail as possible. If you create an online account, the FTC will create a recovery plan for you, track your progress, and prefill any forms and letters you will need. If you choose not to create an account, you will need to print and save your Identity Theft Affidavit and recovery plan right away.
- File a report with your local police department. Notify the local police that your identity has been stolen and give them a copy of your FTC Identity Theft Affidavit, a government-issued photo ID, proof of your address (mortgage statement, rental agreement, utilities bill), any other proof you have of the theft (bills, IRS notices, etc.), and the FTC’s Memo to Law Enforcement. Ask for a copy of the police report. This, along with your FTC Identity Theft Affidavit, will create your identity theft report.
It’s important to stay alert regarding the most recent data breaches. This way you can take immediate action if you suspect your identity has been stolen. Another way to protect yourself is to purchase insurance coverage. Identity theft protection reimburses the cost of restoring your identity and repairing your credit report, covering costs such as phone bills, lost wages, notary and certified mailing costs, and sometimes attorney fees.
Check with your independent agent to see if your homeowners or renter’s insurance policy includes identity theft protection. If not, coverage is rather inexpensive, about $25 to $50 a year.
Remember, no one is immune to becoming a victim of identity fraud. By taking preventative measures, monitoring your credit, and purchasing insurance coverage, you can help to ensure the safety of your own identity.
Richard A. McGrath, CIC, LIA is President and CEO of McGrath Insurance Group of Sturbridge, Mass. He can be reached at 508-347-6850 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is written for informational purposes only and should not be construed as providing legal advice.