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Once More, with Feeling: The Need to Repeat

by Neal O'Farrell on January 26th, 2011

Since our launch in October 2010, we at the Identity Theft Council have brought you articles, tips, and newsbytes, both from our expert contributors and volunteer staff, aimed at keeping your Personally Identifiable Information personal. Our goals, as always, are to make sure you get the latest news and alerts as soon as possible, and to gently remind you that your own awareness and vigilance play a key role in protecting you from wave after wave of new threats.

Some of the advice that we give may seem like common sense, and therefore hardly worth repeating. And repeating. And repeating for good measure. But that’s the point. The key to protecting yourself and your family from identity theft and other threats is gentle and frequent reminders to do the obvious. We know you’re busy, and we never want to scare you. But just as common-sense reminders to watch your diet and exercise regularly are essential to keeping you healthy, we hope our frequent columns and their reoccurring themes will help do the same for the your identity’s health. Even if sometimes it just feels like more of the same message, again and again.

Instead of citing the statistics (which is something we do often here) or showing you the various news sources that back up our cited statistics (that, again, we do here often), the ITC would like to ask you a few simple questions to get you thinking of how you, as the individual, combat identity theft.

  1. Do you own a shredder at home?
    The question isn’t “Do you have access to a shredder?” but whether or not you have one at your home? Dumpster diving is not reserved solely for the workplace. This is a problem even in your own neighborhood, whether you live in the city or in the suburbs. If you do own a shredder, but it’s several years old, take a look at how it shreds your documents. If your shredder does not destroy documents using cross cuts that turn paper into confetti, you should think about getting a new one.
  2. How strong are the passwords on your accounts?
    Strength in your passwords goes beyond what they are (for example, Bill1234 is not as strong as 20!1Mond@y), but how often you use them. Is your password a one-use-only password, or are you using it across multiple accounts, across multiple services? Are you using a password manager that gives you a master password over all of your accounts, like a skeleton key? If yes, how secure are these products? Is there a failsafe if someone gets a hold of your master password?
  3. How often do you read off your credit card number over the phone?
    In your own home, sure, you should be fine; but how often do you do this in a public place like your office, an airport, or some other high traffic situation? Particularly when people are on Bluetooth headsets, voices can carry a lot further than you realize. You can’t be too sure who will overhear you.
  4. Do you ever sacrifice security for convenience?
    How often, when in need of a unique identification number (for example, on your state license or identification), do you opt for using your Social Security Number? How often have you given out or listed your Social Security Number when setting up a personal account on a website? The Social Security Number is one that we know by heart as we use it for so many official purposes, such as job applications, passports, bank accounts, and so on. This does not mean, though, we should use it merely out of convenience with no consideration where it may reside. Your Social Security Number is unique to you, and should be handled with care.
  5. How often do you check your bank account?
    Every day? Every week? When it comes time to balance the books, when and where do you do it? At home? The office? Or in the coffee shop offering up free WiFi? Have you considered the risk across at all three of those networks, and what kind of protections are present on your computer? All of these decisions factor into your level of risk when you’re working online at your bank’s website.

Certainly, there are other questions you should be asking yourself, but the ones cited above tend to be the most common questions that go unanswered.

We see again and again across the blogosphere, the Internet, and even our own site many tips on how to protect yourself. It is not so much “sounding like a broken record” but tips that are worth repeating. These are the top tips as ranked by the ITC.

  • Make sure you keep any sensitive personal information, especially Social Security cards, passports, and birth certificates, locked away safely.
  • Protect your credit/debit card number. Avoid reading it off in public places.
  • When using at an ATM, check the ATM reader before swiping before swiping to see if the equipment appears to be tampered with. Check your account balances online often in case of suspicious charges.
  • Check your bank account or accounts at least once a week. Visit your bank online often, and make certain to log off (as opposed to just “time out”) the bank site as soon as you are done.
  • When you’re finished with receipts and bills, particularly after tax season, shred any documents you no longer need. Shredders are inexpensive, and cross-cut shredders tend to provide the most thorough job. If you have a lot of paper to shred, consider taking your records to a professional service.
  • Make your passwords a challenge for hackers to guess or crack. Mix into your password a random mixture of numbers, symbols, and capital letters, and change them often.
  • Invest in multi-layered computer protection. Antivirus software. Wireless routers with encryption protection in place. Firewalls for the home. The more layers of protection you install, the harder a target you become.
  • Think twice before accessing sensitive data when working on open WiFi networks at restaurants, coffee houses, and hotels. If you find it easy to access a free Wi-Fi service, it’s safe to assume everyone else does too, including malicious types that could exploit such opportunities.

With these tips in mind, don’t forget to get out and experience life. As we said before, we’re not here to scare you. We just want you to know we’re out here, looking out for you; and together, we can make a united front against identity theft.

Make it a good day!

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