13 Tips to Help keep You and Your Identity Safe
With the holiday season officially upon us, and all of its sweet holiday sales and savings, you are probably going to be doing some shopping. If you are like 122 million Americans today, you may be doing that shopping online.
Online shopping is fast, efficient and convenient. From the comfort of one’s home (or anywhere else, thanks to smart phones and tablets) you can shop for virtually anything and avoid the frustration of finding a parking spot, pesky lines, unruly children, overcrowded department stores or any of the other countless irritations you might face shopping during the holiday season. Hell, you don’t even have to put on pants if you don’t want to. Online shopping isn’t all rainbows and sunshine, though. Just like anything else in life, it does come with some problems.
The main drawback with online shopping is that you open yourself up to scammers and identity thieves (by submitting sensitive data – IE. bank accounts, credit cards, etc. – online). Javelin Strategy & Research recently released an identity fraud study that found the number of identity fraud victims increased to 13.1 million consumers in 2016. That is a 3% increase from the 12.7 million consumers in 2015. On the bright side, there was a 6% drop in the amount of money stolen – $15 billion in 2016; $16 billion in 2015.
Scary? Absolutely, but what’s that got to do with taxes? Well, I’ll tell you: although there was a decline in the amount of money stolen, there was still an increase in the number of people who had their identities stolen. Why? Because even when these thieves don’t target your bank accounts, they can use your identity to commit other types of fraud – like identity theft-related tax fraud.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has reported that they are making great strides in protecting taxpayers from these sorts of crimes, but there are still some ways you can prevent it from happening to you at all.
Here are 13 useful tips to help you protect yourself from identity theft all year round:
- Use secure connections.
Shopping from your mobile device or tablet can be very convenient as you can literally shop from just about anywhere, but if you’re one of the 28 million Americans who do shop from their mobile device, be smart about it. Never connect to an unknown or unsecured WI-fi connection. If you find yourself in an area with an unsecured or unknown WI-fi connection, use cellular data instead or a VPN (virtual private network). If you must use the WI-fi, save your really sensitive data – like online banking – for later.
- Watch Your Apps
If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Any ad for a shopping app promising to save you buckets of money on anything should raise some red flags. If you are tempted to click these ads, do some research beforehand. Read reviews and be wary of any apps that pop up overnight promising great discounts. Never click on apps in unsolicited emails and only download trusted, well-reviewed (by several people, preferably) apps available through online retailers from Apple’s app store on iTunes or Google Play.
- Be careful when “clipping” online coupons.
It is always safest to get your coupons from magazines and the Sunday paper, but paper coupons, like all things paper, are becoming obsolete. When you look for coupons on the web, you could be exposing yourself to threats such as malware or phishing scams. Be leery of sites that require you to click a link to be redirected for coupons, and do not click any links you receive from unsolicited emails. If you are confident the online coupon or promotion code is legitimate, copy and paste the code directly into the retailer’s site when you checkout.
- Be mindful of print-outs.
With pretty much everything going digital, it’s easy to forget that paper documents do still matter and those with sensitive information should be protected. For instance, if you find that you have to print out a purchase confirmation, don’t leave it in a shared printer at work, or lying around on your desk, or on the floor of your car. Put it in a personal file, and keep it safe. Once you no longer need it, shred it. The same goes for any receipts you might save to compare with bank or credit card statements (which is definitely a good habit to get into). Also, credit card statements, bank receipts, copies of tax returns – you get the point.
- Keep your mailing address current.
If you should move, make certain that you update your address on all of your frequent and favorite shopping sites along with your financial institutions (i.e. banks), credit reporting agencies, post office, and tax authorities. That way, your packages and important mail doesn’t end up in the wrong hands. To change your address with the Internal Revenue Service, file a federal form 8822, Change of Address. To change your address with the United States Postal Service you can do so here.
- Be wary of those package-tracking emails.
Online tracking info can be a great tool and is usually available for packages shipped via FedEx, UPS, and USPS ( if the shipper paid for tracking). Don’t get fooled by spammy emails like this one:
Or this one:
Just like with the coupon rule, you shouldn’t have to click any links to get the information you need. The retailer should provide you with the tracking number which you can then copy and paste into the respective shipping company’s website.
- When possible, use credit.
You may have been told in the past that opening up or using credit cards was a bad idea. With online shopping, they are actually the way to go. Think of it as like wearing a seat belt; just because you are careful and follow all the rules, you cannot trust that everyone else will, too. The same applies for online shopping. Even if you do everything right – only use the most secure networks, make certain not to allow any malware or spyware onto your computer, use secure passwords that you change frequently, etc., it does not mean that the other parties you are dealing with will be just as careful with your super-sensitive data (like your banking information). So if, for instance, a thief managed to get his or her hands on your debit card information because of a negligent retailer, they could easily clean out your account in just minutes and it could take weeks for the bank to sort out the mess and get that money back to you. With credit cards, on the other hand, you are able to contest or dispute charges made and your liability may be capped, thus protecting you even further.
- Keep an eye on bank and credit card statements.
Just because your credit and debit cards are still in your wallet, it does not mean your information is safe when it comes to fraudsters. While you do not have to obsess over your accounts and statements, you definitely should check them from time to time just to be certain that the transactions made were yours. If you notice any suspicious activity, investigate it and report it immediately.
- Don’t give away the goods online.
Online marketing companies love gathering personal data about their consumers. The information they gather about you helps them hone their marketing; so the more information they can gather about you, the better. When you purchase something online, only give the retailer or company the information they need. It is not required or even necessary for you to give them everything they ask for. Often times those companies sell your information to other companies including your email address and you will become the target of many unsolicited emails from other companies.
- Be stingy with your social security number.
We have been so over-saturated with filling out forms online, we don’t even bat an eye when being asked for more information than is necessary. You do not need to give out your social security number or even your mother’s maiden name when buying a sweater online. Unless there is a very legitimate purpose for a company to be asking for it, do not provide your social security number, especially online! For more information on social security numbers and privacy, click here.
- Be clever with your passwords.
With the countless number of websites that require passwords, remembering all of them can be difficult. That is why it can be tempting to cut corners and use the same and/or simple passwords for all sites. Resist that urge. Use secure passwords with a mix of characters and change them regularly. If you need help generating and remembering passwords, consider using a password manager like LastPass or 1Password.
- Monitor your credit report(s).
Each year, by law, you are entitled to one free copy of your credit report from each of the major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). If you are a victim of identity theft, you may be entitled to additional free copies. Visit www.annualcreditreport.com to claim your free copy or call 1.877.322.8228. Just like you would review your credit card or bank statements, review your credit report – check to make sure that the transactions and credit requests are all ones that you have approved.
- Pay attention to fraud alerts.
When there is a suspicious transaction on an account, many banks will alert the account holder. Find out if your bank or lender has such fraud alerts and make use of them.
Regardless of what precautions you might take, the fact of the matter is that everyone is vulnerable to identity theft. The best thing you can do is to be smart and protect yourself – especially when online shopping or using your credit cards online.
If you do find yourself in the unfortunate situation where your personal data has been compromised, do not panic. First things first, you’ll want to contact your financial institution to mitigate any damage to your credit on your accounts. From there, you may need to obtain a new card, switch your account, or even freeze your card – depending on the state you live in. Furthermore, you may also want to file a complaint with the FTC at identitytheft.gov. If the identity theft in question is tax-related – such as finding out that someone has filed a tax return using your Social Security Number – you should immediately respond to any IRS notice and complete federal form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit. For more information on taxpayer related identity theft, check out the IRS Taxpayer Guide to Identity Theft.