Like most people, you probably shop online a lot. No doubt you use your credit or debit cards often at stores and restaurants. We know that shopping online and using credit and debit cards increases one’s risk for identity theft. So, what is the best identity theft protection? Is it paying for a service, or just being acutely aware and using common sense?
Many companies offer “ultimate identity theft protection” for a fee. But paying for a service may not be the best identity theft protection available. It’s only August, but 2017 has already seen several major data breaches, ransomware incidents, and cyber hacks. Victims are often offered protection services from an identity monitoring organization for a set amount of time after a breach. A valuable service, no doubt. But does it truly provide the best ID theft protection? Maybe not.
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Many of these paid services rely heavily on credit monitoring to identify suspicious activity. Scrutiny of public records and loan monitoring are often included. However, both the government and security experts have questioned the utility and security of these services, suggesting that signing up is not enough to truly safeguard a consumer’s identity. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has accused at least one major provider of false advertising.
So, if paying for a service is not necessarily the best identity theft protection, what is? An article on identity theft from Consumer Reports suggests that common sense and a healthy dose of caution may be just as effective. It offers consumers tips to better protect themselves:
Get serious, not scared. You can protect yourself by taking these low-tech, common-sense precautions:
- Never give your social security number or other information to strangers who call, text or send email messages to you. Even if a request looks to be legitimate, access the sender’s site independently to verify the correspondence.
- Never leave your wallet or purse unattended, and don’t carry your social security card, unused credit cards or written PINs or passwords.
- Never post your date of birth, your mother’s maiden name, your pet’s name or other personal information on any social media site such as Facebook, etc.
- If your bank or credit card issuer offers free online or mobile alerts to warn you of suspicious activity, sign up.
Place security freezes and fraud alerts. You can shut out identity thieves before they cause damage by placing a security freeze on your credit reports at all three major credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. This will prevent unauthorized access to your credit data. One downside: fraud alerts are usually free, but security freezes can cost $5 to $10 per person each time you place or lift one.
Secure your devices. On your computer, have a firewall in place and regularly update your anti-virus, anti-spyware and anti-phishing software. Use strong passwords with capital and lower-case letters, numbers, and symbols. Put strong security passwords on your smartphone, tablets and portable flash drives.
Review all your personal data files. Check your credit report periodically for items you don’t recognize. Dispute incorrect and potentially fraudulent information. You can get free credit reports online.
Stop unsolicited credit card offers.You can stop credit bureaus from selling your name by going to www.optoutprescreen.com. It is free and should stop most offers.
Monitor accounts often. Sign up for online access to check all of your accounts, especially your bank accounts. Don’t wait for the monthly bill. In addition, monitor your phone bills and look for charges that appear to be suspicious. Be especially cautious if you use your smartphone as a mobile payment device.
Respond rapidly. Immediately contact your creditors or financial institution to report anything unrecognizable, fraudulent or suspicious. Chances are good that these actions will resolve the problem quickly and at little or no cost.
So, what is the best identity theft protection? A paid service may add value and provide automatic alerts. But, good old common sense, tenacity and taking advantage of free services seems just as valuable. Get going now.
This post was originally published in 2017 and was updated August 14, 2017.