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Identity theft is an unfortunate reality of today’s world. It’s a growing problem in the U.S. and pandemic relief worsened the problem as identity thieves targeted relief checks and unemployment benefits. Theft of benefits in 2020 was up 2,920% of 2019. Overall, the Federal Trade Commission received 1.4 million complaints of identity theft from consumers in 2020, up 113% from 2019. 

The intent of this article is to educate you on the best, proven strategies you can use to protect yourself against identity theft. There’s no way to inoculate yourself against identity theft completely, but if you’re diligent in learning how your information can be at risk and what identity thieves can do with it, you’ll be better equipped to protect your data and act quickly if someone does manage to steal it. 

What is Identity Theft?

Identity theft is when someone steals your personal or financial information without your permission or knowledge, for the purpose of posing as you in some way for financial or other gain. They may steal critical information like your name, address, date of birth, social security number, driver’s license number, credit card or bank account numbers. Identity thieves may use your information to open new loans, create new accounts,  make purchases or commit other fraud. Due to the nature of technology and the internet, your personal information is always at risk.

Why Should I Care About Identity Theft?

Identity theft is a serious crime and can have a big impact on an individual’s future. No one thinks they’ll be a victim of identity theft until it happens. It’s not easy to prove that you did not do something. Financial institutions and businesses will hold you responsible for the debts, at least until you prove you are a victim of identity theft.

9 Best Ways to Prevent Identity Theft

Identity theft can happen to anyone, but you can reduce the risk of becoming a victim by taking some simple steps to protect your personal information. Here are 9 ways to help prevent identity theft from happening to you.

1. Protect Your Social Security Number

Your social security number is the key component to your personal data. Guard it as best as you can. When someone asks for your social security number, ask why it is needed and how it will be protected once provided. 

Do not carry your social security card with you. Make sure to securely store your card and any paperwork containing your social security number where it is not easily accessible by others. Shred any paperwork containing your social security number that you do not need anymore and remember to only give out your SSN when absolutely required.

2. Use extra strong passwords and 2-step authentication when possible

A strong password consists of a random combination of letters, numbers, and symbols. Try using a password manager to create and store unique passwords for your accounts. It’s recommended you change your passwords every six to 12 months. 

Using the same password for all of your electronic devices and financial accounts is a major security risk. A good way to stop an identity thief from accessing your data is to change up your passwords and use a unique one for every account. Do not include your name or birthdate in any passwords if at all possible. Always remember to change your password anytime you suspect an account is compromised.

3. Shred sensitive documents before discarding

Shredding paper documents is one of the most cost-effective ways to prevent fraud and identity theft. With inexpensive home shredders available in store and online, it has become easier than ever to destroy papers with personal information on them. 

Safeguard important documents at home and shred any documents containing personal information that you no longer need, such as paid bills, receipts or preapproved credit card offers. What you do keep, put in a secure place, such as a locked file cabinet or safe. To stop pre-approved credit card offers, simply request to have your name removed from the credit bureau marketing lists. Call toll free 1-888-5OPTOUT (888-567-8688) or opt out online at www.optoutprescreen.com.

4. Go paperless as much as possible

Opting into paperless billing eliminates the possibility of someone stealing information out of your mailbox. Stolen mail is one of the easiest paths to a stolen identity. If possible, have your mail delivered to a Post Office box or install a USPS approved locked mailbox. 

Besides reducing your risk of lost or stolen mail, digital billing allows for an easier way to keep track of your bills and helps the environment by eliminating the use of paper. 

If you’re paying online or in a store use a digital wallet, an app containing secure, digital versions of credit and debit cards. Transactions are tokenized and encrypted, which makes them safer and eliminates your need to carry your cards and risk losing them. At many stores  you can also opt to have your receipts emailed to you.

5. Evaluate the businesses you use

This is particularly important when dealing with online businesses. Some thieves will trick you with websites that may appear legitimate, so be sure to verify that the website is trustworthy before handing over any personal information. However, you can be a victim even while using legitimate websites. Utilize the website’s password and security features as an added layer of protection and take a look at the business’ privacy policy to see how the company will use or distribute your information.

6. Be aware of what information you make public

The internet and social media have made it a lot easier for people to obtain, sell and trade the personal and financial data of others. Thieves can gather information simply by browsing the information on your profile or your collection of posts. 

Most of us provide our personal information – name, birthday, job, hometown – on our social media profiles without a second thought. What social media fails to warn us about is that the personal information we share can all be answers to security verification questions that we’ve set up on our most sensitive accounts.

Children under the age of 18 are often the target of child identity theft because they have no credit history. Posting information about your children on social media, including their full names and birthdays, can be just as dangerous as posting your own.

7. Check your home network security

In addition to the information you choose to make public, be wary of the information you don’t. If a network connects to the internet, it’s still at risk and vulnerable to outside threats. Protect the data stored on your personal computer by installing a network firewall and using anti-virus software. Don’t forget to update frequently as well! Check out this article for more tips on how you can secure your home network.

Your home networks might have a range of wireless devices on them – from computers and phones to IP camera, smart TVs and connected appliances. Using basic steps to secure your home Wi-Fi network will help protect your devices from getting hacked and your information from getting stolen. Your Wi-Fi network is your home’s wireless internet connection. It usually involves a wireless router that sends a signal to connect to the internet. Be sure your home network is password protected to prevent any device within range from using your internet connection. 

Encrypt your home Wi-Fi network to make it more secure. Encrypting scrambles the information sent through your network and makes it harder for other people to get your personal information.

8. Monitor your account activity

Although this won’t stop someone from taking your information, it does give you an opportunity to stop them in their tracks. Utilizing HFS Online or Mobile Banking features will help you monitor your account for any suspicious purchases or activity. 

To keep you up to date on your credit history we also offer a free service to our members called SavvyMoney. This feature shows your latest credit score, gives you an understanding of the key factors that impact your score, and shows you the most up to date offers that can help reduce your interest costs. SavvyMoney also alerts you when a new credit inquiry is made or a new account is added to your credit report. It’s another great tool to help alert you if someone is trying to open credit accounts using your identity! 

One of the best ways to protect against identity theft is to monitor your credit history. You can order a free credit report every year from each of the three credit bureaus through annualcreditreport.com. It’s important to familiarize yourself with what’s in your credit report. The faster you’re aware of suspicious activity, the faster you can act and the less damage an identity theft can do to your reputation. 

Review your recent transactions at least once or twice a week. This is the best way to look out for and prevent fraud on your accounts. Sometimes a thief will make one small purchase to test whether the charge will go through unnoticed before moving on to larger purchases. If you regularly check your accounts, you could catch the small purchases and prevent larger ones from being made. If you ever see a transaction that doesn’t look familiar, contact your financial institution as soon as possible!

9. Set up suspicious activity alerts

Alerts are a great tool to keep you notified of what’s happening with your account. You can set up your own account alerts within Online Banking and choose the ones which fit your needs. HFS has a Fraud Detection System that will notify you by phone if potential fraud is spotted within your account. 

HFS Visa Platinum and Visa Signature Credit Cardholders will get fraud alerts when a transaction seems suspicious. Fraud alerts will be sent to you through text message, phone call and email. The HFS Cards app has multiple features which include viewing your credit card transactions, report cards lost or stolen, set alerts and controls for purchases, and the ability to turn your card on and off. Alerts are customized notifications you set to alert you when something happens on your card. You can be notified for transactions over a dollar limit, a foreign transaction, etc. Controls are limitations you put in place on your card. You can set a control to deny certain transactions, only approve transactions over a certain dollar amount or decline transactions from a gas pump. Set your card preferences for your lifestyle. 

Protect Yourself from Identity Theft

Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in the country. Identity thieves are constantly looking for new ways to obtain personal and financial information. By consistently applying the nine ways to protect your personal information and monitor your credit, it’ll reduce the risks of having your identity stolen and alert you instantly if such a problem arises. The best way to avoid identity theft is to stop it before it happens. 

If you need assistance with any of the tips we’ve talked about here, including setting up alerts for your HFS FCU account, please visit any branch or give us a call today. Not a member yet? No problem – open an account today!

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