As technology becomes more advanced, and our use of computers for financial transactions increasingly common, it’s no wonder identity theft is on the rise. So common, in fact, that it affects around 12 million Americans per year. Identity theft can be devastating and financially ruinous, so being proactive is going to be the best way to stay safe. Here’s our top five suggestions for keeping yourself protected.

1. Be Wary of Unsecured Wi-Fi and Online Shopping

When surfing the web, it’s important to use secure Wi-Fi, especially in your home. Maintain a password and share it only with those you trust to keep yourself protected. It’s also not the best idea to access bank accounts, financial records, credit reports, medical information, online shopping, or anything else that could compromise your privacy when in public places that have unsecured Wi-Fi, as anyone on the same network could potentially get into your records.

When it comes to online shopping or entertainment, check for the tiny “lock” symbol on the left of the URL (this should appear when you access your online banking or credit cards) which confirms that a website is secure and protected. Oftentimes, information is being accessed from different countries and since many streaming sites such as Netflix and HBO are secure, viewers may need a Netflix proxy to access them. Just be careful when accessing different sites to make sure they’re authentic, as thefts have been known to create, “clone sites.”

Although it’s a hassle to retype credit card information over and over again, it’s not always a great idea to save passwords and identification numbers on each site you visit. Also, be sure to use strong passwords for important sites, rather than repeating or reusing the same passwords. Use various combinations of upper and lowercase letters, characters, and numbers, creating something less predictable and lowering your chances of being targeted.

2. Monitor Bank Statements and Check Your Credit Report

Most of us receive monthly statements from banks or credit card companies. It’s helpful to check on these a few times a month, rather than just once when it comes out, particularly around various holidays when online shopping is at its peak. This enables you to catch suspicious activity or unknown charges quicker, saving you a headache in the long-run. Report anything out of the ordinary immediately, and cancel your debit or credit cards and have them replaced.

There’s a handful of options out there that will offer free credit reports. Take advantage of these! Once you sign up, they’ll typically send monthly statements on your spending and when your credit score changes. Many will show credit card and loan payment activity, so you’ll be able to distinguish anything out of the ordinary.

3. Protect Important Documents and Destroy Unnecessary Ones

How often are you going to be asked to produce your social security card to get into a bar or through airport security? Almost never, which means it shouldn’t be hanging out in your wallet. When carrying around that type of document, the chances of either losing or having it stolen immediately rise. Sometimes, various applications will ask for it, and in many cases you aren’t actually obligated to share that information, so remember to inquire before doling it out. If you’re not traveling internationally and have a license for identification purposes, opt for using that rather than your passport. Always store your social security card and birth certificate somewhere safe and secure, not on your person.

Make sure you’re disposing of old records properly. Bank statements, old credit cards or receipts, and anything with your personal information on them should be cut up or shredded, as long as you no longer need them. There are some documents that may need to be held onto for tax purposes, which should be kept in a safe place until no longer necessary.

4. Steer Clear of Phishing

Phishing scams are a way for people to access personal or financial information under the guise of offers, promotions, or seemingly legitimate websites. They can also come in the form of unsolicited phone calls or unknown numbers. Phishing scams can present in various ways, from the easily detectable to the nearly imperceptible and sophisticated, and will often offer links to, “update your information” or encourage you to visit a bank’s website, changing the URL slightly and taking the user to a website specifically designed to gather their information. Over the phone, people may ask about your credit card debt or provide unsolicited loan offers. If a website seems suspicious or foreign to you, refrain from clicking on it and read up on phishing scams and how to detect them.

5. Be Smart About Social Media

Many social media sites require your e-mail address and will ask for personal information, including your phone number and location. Check the privacy settings on each website, as you can control who sees what, and make sure nothing is being shared or accessed without your knowledge or permission.

Use antivirus software and protection. Make sure that the software you choose is compatible with your operating system, legitimate, and up to date. This software will protect you from spyware, viruses, unsafe apps or websites, and malware. Be mindful of the links being shared throughout various platforms, as these are easy places to hide suspicious sites within seemingly benign posts. You can also opt to turn off location settings when browsing various sites from your phone. Many apps will ask for your location, which you don’t necessarily need to share unless the specific app depends on it, (ie. Uber, Lyft, Google Maps).

In essence, use your intuition. Have discretion when sharing your personal information with others and be smart about what you’re posting and accessing online. If something seems suspicious or strange, it’s probably because it is, so follow up and ask questions before sharing anything, or steer clear entirely. In this digital age, it’s become increasingly difficult to stay private, so put that extra effort into keeping yourself safe.

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