Identity theft is a rather unpleasant modern crime. Not content with simply emptying your wallet, the cyber thief is after your whole digital being and may even use it to carry out additional crimes in your name.
This kind of theft can take many forms but the most common involves credit card fraud which is the case over 70 percent of the time. This is done by stealing the details on your card or setting up a new card with your name on it. The first you’ll ever hear of the matter is a call from collections.
The damage can be more than financial. If the thief carried out any criminal activity in your name, it’s difficult for law enforcement to determine what’s what. Sorting out a miscarriage of justice like this can be a long and difficult process, so it’s much better if you take steps to avoid the problem in the first place.
With criminals inventing new tricks every day, it’s hard to know how to stay safe. We’ve compiled a few tips to prevent identity theft online, which, hopefully, will give you a little peace of mind. The ground here is ever shifting, however, so be alert for new ways to keep yourself safe.
Prioritize Your Most Important Accounts
Many people store a lot of information in one place, so hackers breaking into one online service can use the information they find to break into others. If you have a main email account, for example, a hacker can use it to gain entry into other services you use by requesting new passwords. The reset emails will be sent to your main account which the hacker can then respond to.
Using two-factor authentication for important accounts makes breaking into them much harder. The hacker will need to crack your password in addition to having access to your second factor, cutting down the risk significantly. Doing this for all your online services may be overkill but for your most important accounts, the extra protection is worth it.
Guard Your Information
Your personal details can be hugely valuable to hackers, so don’t hand them out to people you don’t know. Be wary of contacts messaging you via an unusual method. Someone that has accessed a friend’s address book might contact you in their name to gather more details about you or them.
Many sites try to gather as much information as they can about you. That’s the business model for social media. The trouble with this is that if someone accesses that info, impersonating you becomes a lot easier. These days it is getting more common for sites to connect the dots and amalgamate what different companies know about you.
You can mitigate this by giving out as little info as possible. Avoid giving away any optional info and sign up for services using a throwaway email address. If a site asks you things that you don’t want to divulge, then vote with your mouse and sign up somewhere else.
Keep an eye on what info services you use are handing out. Skype bizarrely decided the world should know your birth date several years ago, despite that being one of the first pieces of information banks and financial institutions use to confirm your identity.
Be careful what you share on social media, especially publicly. Criminals are nothing if not persistent and will happily trawl through your posts looking for anything that can be used to steal your credentials and break into your accounts.
For more on keeping your info private, please take a look at our online privacy guide.
When downloading smartphone apps you should be extra careful – especially with less well-known applications. You will usually be told what information a new app wants access to. It is tempting to just click through these screens, but don’t be too quick to grant an app permissions you aren’t comfortable with. There are always alternatives.
Keep an eye on what you install on your PC, too. Many software installers try to sneak an extra app onto your computer, but will notify you of this first. Feel free to decline. Usually, these pieces of malware come from common-use applications, such as PDF converters, that you may only need a single time.
Encrypt Your Data
Encryption is your single biggest defense against online crime. When using a VPN, cloud storage or online backup provider, make sure the encryption model is up to date. We recommend AES-256, as it’s the most difficult to crack.
In addition to online dangers you should be wary of what can happen if a device you own is stolen. Your hard drive is full of information that can be used maliciously, if it falls into the wrong hands. This information can be worth more to a criminal than the resale value of the device itself.
Encrypting your data helps. If someone gains access to your device, they can’t do as much damage if your data isn’t readable. You can encrypt what you have stored locally, as well as online. For more info please see our article on how to encrypt your data for cloud storage.
If you’re worried about prying eyes there, then make sure to read about the best zero-knowledge cloud services.
Use a Password Manager
Choosing a password seems tougher than ever, with sites asking you to put numbers, symbols and capital letters all over the place. Remembering them is a royal pain in the backside. It can be tempting just to pick one password and stick with it, but should someone discover it, they can take over your whole online life and cause you no end of problems.
A password manager can help you out here, generating long, unique passwords for the services you use and entering them into sites for you. This makes life harder for criminals and easier for you.
You do need to be sensible. There is an element of putting all your eggs in one basket with a password manager, as anyone accessing it has all your passwords available. We took a look at the best password managers recently so have a gander at them, if you want to protect yourself.
When it comes to security questions, make like Pinocchio and lie. Give sites that ask for secret information the wrong info. Security questions are there to identify you, but if you give multiple sites the same answers and one gets hacked, the hacker has something that can be used against you.
The best idea is to give sites different replies and track them along with your password. Hackers might guess your favorite sports team, but are unlikely to guess that your first kiss was Beyonce Knowles. You can even respond to security questions with an answer unrelated to the question, which makes it much harder for anyone to figure out.
Password managers such as Dashlane (read our Dashlane Review) and Abine Blur (read our Blur review) allow you to add notes to password entries, making the process of tracking faux answers much simpler. You can read through our password manager reviews for a few more options.
Connect with a VPN
A VPN is a service that routes your internet traffic through a single encrypted connection, giving you an extra degree of control over what content you can access and who can see it. Take a look at our what is a VPN article for more.
Using a VPN can give you an extra layer of security. Since your IP address changes, it can make life more difficult for those who use your IP address to figure out which online accounts are used by the same person. Many VPNs come with malware-blocking software, which also helps keep you safe.
With no location, browsing history or IP address, hackers have a difficult time finding a shred of information to go on. If you’re using a VPN, a hacker might target you, but will likely fall away with no starting point.
If you’re thinking of getting one, take a look at our list of the best VPNs to find the right option for you.
Keep Software Current
Software flaws are discovered constantly and these security holes can let hackers break into your computer. Update your OS and software regularly, and make sure you download the latest patches. Doing this can be troublesome, but not as bad as finding you’ve purchased a Ferrari and never had the chance to drive it.
You should check your privacy settings on your OS and devices. For tips on how to do this on Windows, read our Windows 10 privacy settings article. Email settings can also be tuned to protect your information. Image links in emails can leak your IP address and other details to hackers, so disabling automatic image display in your email client is a good idea.
With that, we hope you rest a bit easier in keeping yourself safe online. Remember, none of these tips are foolproof and you can’t be too careful online or off. Fraudsters are always coming up with new ways to work their mischief, but stay vigilant and you should be alright.
Identity theft isn’t the only danger you have to worry about online, so take a look at our cybercrime article to learn about other online dangers. Let us know in the comments if you have experienced identity theft or have any tips for avoiding it.