Data breaches and identity theft are occurring more and more frequently. Some of the largest events, such as the Equifax breach that affected 143 million people, make the news, but plenty of smaller instances do not. If your identity is stolen, the thief could access your bank accounts, take out loans, or establish new credit in your name, all before you realize anything is wrong. Fortunately, you can take steps to protect yourself and your personal information from cybercrime and prevent identity theft.
If you do have your identity stolen — or your wallet, for that matter — you want to be able to head the thieves off instantly. When you make a copy of everything in your wallet — your driver's license, your work ID, all your credit cards, and any other personal information — you're prepared to make the emergency phone calls you need to protect yourself. And don't forget to copy the backs of your credit cards, where you'll find all the phone numbers you need to call.
Your identity is at risk in two major venues: online and in the real world. You can help protect your online identity by choosing strong passwords that contain a mix of upper-case and lower-case letters as well as numbers and symbols. You should never use obvious passwords such as your birthdate, childhood address or pet's name — and avoid "password," "12345" and the like, as well. Choose a unique password for every site.
Load up your computer with anti-spyware software in addition to the anti-virus software you're probably already using. Every time you upgrade your operating system, make sure to upgrade your protection software as well. When you have your laptop out and about, be careful about where you log on to the internet. Take the few extra minutes to get the password for your location rather than logging on via unsecured public portals.
With two-factor authentication, just your password isn't enough to access an account. Once you've started your login, your account sends you a text or email and asks you to respond with a code to verify your identity. Many of your financial accounts probably already require two-factor authentication, and your place of work may demand it as well. Opt-in, even on social media accounts, which contain a lot of personal information that identity thieves covet.
The social security number was never supposed to be an ID number, but it has become an unofficial one in recent years. Though collecting social security may be many years in the future for you, you should guard this number more than any other piece of identification. A thief can take over your identity with just your name, address, and social security number. Never carry your actual Social Security card with you (You've memorized the number anyway, right?). Don't use it as part of any password, and never, ever give it out to anyone who isn't authorized to know it.
You carry a lot of personal identification information in your wallet. Do everything you can to keep it out of thieves' hands. Use handbags and backpacks that zip shut — and keep them zipped. Wear bags toward the front of your body rather than the back where you can't see them, and never leave them on, say, a table at a fast food joint while you walk away for just a second. Also, don't leave your wallet or bag in the car where it's just waiting to be stolen. These days, some people even opt for wallets that contain a protective shield to keep tech-savvy thieves from stealing the information on your card with a scanning device.
One of the easiest ways to steal a password in the real world is to watch someone enter it. When you're at an ATM, make sure no one is nearby. If you're using your laptop at a coffee shop, glance around to make sure no one is looking over your shoulder — and even at work, protect your password from lookie-loos. As an added precaution, turn on the fingerprint scanner on your phone as one more precaution.