New Year, New Secure You
Along with vowing to break the seal on that gym membership and contribute the max to your retirement account, consider a resolution to make 2016 the year you lock down your identity.
If you haven’t had your identity compromised, you’re one of the lucky ones. Nearly 13 million Americans were defrauded of $16 billion through identity theft in 2014, according to Javelin Strategy and Research.
How can you help to prevent this from happening to you? Here are seven ways to keep your identity safer.
Routinely review your accounts: If you were an active shopper over the holidays, being reminded of how much you spent might be a tad traumatizing, but going over your accounts once a week will help you spot unauthorized charges quickly.
You’re entitled to free copies of your credit reports from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion once a year. A good strategy is to check one in January for signs of theft, then stagger the other two reviews throughout the year so you can periodically check in.
Avoid banking and shopping on public Wi-Fi: That free Wi-Fi at the corner coffee shop has its advantages. It’s great that you can share updates with 2,309 of your closest friends on Facebook, but when you use public Wi-Fi for banking or shopping, it’s like counting your money on a crowded subway: You’re inviting theft.
Be wary of links in emails: Take a closer look if you get an email declaring that your checking account has been hacked. That message may not be from your credit union at all; you may be being phished.
To be safe, don’t click links in emails unless you are 100% sure they come from someone you trust. In a case like this, contact your financial institution through secure messaging instead, or by calling the phone number listed on its website. It can let you know if unusual activity has really been detected on your account.
Shop securely: Who doesn’t shop online these days? Do yourself a favor and make sure the sites you frequent have both a padlock image next to the URL and a URL that starts with “https” instead of “http.”
As the Target and Home Depot hacks proved, even the most secure sites can get hacked, but if you see these signs of security steps being taken, you’re a whole lot safer.
Carry only the cards you need: Do you really need AmEx, Visa and Discover credit cards, plus your debit card, in your wallet every time you leave home? The more you carry, the more you could lose.
If you can trust yourself to pay your balances in full every month, it’s better to make purchases with a credit card rather than a debit card, because an unauthorized charge on a debit card could tie up your cash for weeks. Try to use cards with “Verified by Visa,” requiring a password every time you use the card, adding another layer of safety.
Lock down your credit report: If you suspect your identity has been compromised, the sooner you contact the three major credit bureaus, the better. Ask Equifax, Experian and TransUnion to freeze your credit files so nobody (including you, unfortunately) can open new accounts in your name.
The next time you need credit you’ll have to ask them to unfreeze it, but you’ll feel safer knowing that you’ve prevented unauthorized access to your credit report. These tips won’t completely protect you from identity theft, but they will make you — and your accounts — harder to hack.
Judy McGuire, NerdWallet
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