October is Cybersecurity Awareness Month. Now in its 18th year, the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) continue to raise awareness about the importance of cybersecurity in the United States.
A great way to begin your cybersecurity journey is by practicing measures to protect against identity and credit card theft. Unfortunately, both issues are growing problems in the U.S. and have been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, theft of benefits was up 2,920% from 2019, as cyber thieves targeted individual’s pandemic relief checks and unemployment benefits. In 2020, the Federal Trade Commission reported that they received 1.4 million complaints of identity theft, up 113% from 2019.
Here’s what you need to know to reduce chances you’ll be a target, and how you can take quick action to minimize damage.
Protect Your Credit Like A Pro
Secure your credit file by freezing your account at all three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. This is the best way to ensure that your credit is protected — it acts as your virtual credit file switch.
Once you freeze your credit file, no one can open a new credit card account — not even you. If you want to open a new credit card account or receive a bank loan, you have to lift the freeze by providing a PIN. Once you are done, refreeze your file using that same PIN.
Without your PIN, your credit file can’t be altered.
How to Do It
Contact each of the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — individually. Ask them to freeze your credit.
- Equifax: Call 800-349-9960 or do it online.
- Experian: Call 888‑397‑3742 or do it online.
- TransUnion: Call 888-909-8872 or do it online.
You can also freeze your credit report at two lesser-known credit bureaus that may have information about you:
- Innovis: Call 800-540-2505 or do it online.
- National Consumer Telecom & Utilities Exchange: Call 866-343-2821 or do it online.
Safeguard Your Social Security Number
Your Social Security number is the master key to unlocking your personal data. Because of this, you should guard it the best you can. If asked for your SSN, inquire why it is needed and how it will be protected.
Don’t carry your Social Security card with you, unless absolutely necessary. It’s best to securely store and shred any paperwork that contains this identification number in full.
Use Strong Passwords and Add an Authentication Step
Use a password manager to manage and store complex, unique passwords for your accounts. Do not reuse passwords. This means completely disregarding that one-size-fits-all password you’ve been using for decades.
Add an authentication step when available, such as with Google. This adds an additional layer to logging into an account, usually by sending a code to your smartphone, backup email or via automated phone call.
Unfortunately security questions aren’t enough. With social media and the worldwide web, hackers can easily identify your mother’s maiden name or the street you grew up on.
How to Do It
Sign Up for Instant Text or Email Alerts
If you’re worried your credit card or bank information may have landed in the wrong hands, sign up for text or email notifications with your credit card company and bank. By doing this, you’ll receive a notification anytime a transaction is made on your accounts. It’s the best way to monitor possible identity theft.
How to Do It
The setup is easy: Enable notifications on your credit card’s website/app, or through your bank’s online portal/app. If you have trouble, contact customer service directly.
In many cases, you’ll be able to customize your notifications based on the transaction. However, it’s best to get notifications for all transactions.
Create Secret “Verbal Passwords” On Bank and Credit Card Accounts
Everyone enters a numbers-based key-code password when withdrawing money from a bank account at the ATM. Some, though not many, retail stores request an ID when you make a credit card purchase at the register. So why don’t banks require a password when you make a transaction at the teller?
Most banks won’t tell you to request a verbal password or phrase to be placed on your bank accounts, but it’s a great safety measure.
How to Do It
Walk into your local bank and ask to speak with the branch manager. When you meet with them, request to speak about your accounts in a private office. Once you are in a closed office, instruct the branch manager to place a “verbal passcode” on all over-the-counter and phone request withdrawals, newly issued bank cards and even transfers.
If the verbal password or phrase is not given, no information or transactions may proceed.
One more tip: When you are asked to give your verbal password, never say your passcode or phrase out loud at the bank. Ask the teller for a piece of paper to write it down, or open up the Notes app on your phone and type it there.
Never Let Your Credit Card Leave Your Sight
When you’re shopping or eating at a restaurant, think twice before you hand over your credit card for payment. When your card leaves your hands and is out of your field of vision, it’s at risk to have its information stolen via a smartphone camera or mini card-reader called a skimmer. The best defense is to be present when your card is swiped.
Avoid Making In-Store Credit Card Applications
Most stores offer immediate credit and an attractive discount on all new purchases with an on-the-spot application and approval. Saving money is appealing, and many fall into the trap.
Ask yourself this: Who is handling the paper application once it has been given to the store clerk? Unfortunately, the information can be exposed to many unsavory people.
If you really want the credit and a special discount, call the company’s credit department or fill out an application online ahead of time.
Now is a good time to turn over a new leaf and better protect your credit and bank accounts. These safety measures will save you precious time and unnecessary headaches.