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Hand shredding paper

How to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft

This is a sponsored post from guest blogger Charles Koh of www.charleskoh.com.

I'm partnering with BECU this year to focus on financial health and wellness, as well as giving you insight into my life and how I manage my finances and relationships. BECU is a member-owned credit union focused on helping increase the financial health of its members.

Today, I'm going to share with you a time when my identity was stolen and some of the things you can do right away to protect yourself and your family. With the growing nature of the internet, it's become a lot easier for identity theft professionals to attack your personal data through online and offline methods.

Last year, 16.7 million people in the U.S. were victims of identity theft. The most common kinds? Credit cards opened with stolen information, tax refund fraud and scam emails, according to the 2018 Identity Fraud Study by Javelin Strategy & Research.

How It Happened:

It was the summer of 2016 when some unusual activity started happening in the joint checking account my wife and I share. It was declining a lot faster than we were anticipating, and we weren't spending much money at the time. My wife and I ignored it for a few weeks, then made the decision to print out all the transactions for the last 12 months and started highlighting everything that looked odd to us. And there it was, $500 being pulled out from an unknown location in New Jersey every month for the last 4 months. We dug into it and it was identity theft. We called up our financial institution and canceled the card right away. The crazy thing is we still don't exactly know how the criminal got access to our card, but it all points to some sort of online breach.

IMMEDIATE STEPS TO TAKE IF YOUR IDENTITY IS COMPROMISED:

Step 1: Notify any affected financial institutions

This was the first action we took when we found out. I made a quick phone call to the financial institution and put a hold on the account until we figured out what was going on. According to BECU, if fraudulent activity is detected, reporting the fraudulent activity as quickly as possible can save you from being liable for any unauthorized charges. Most credit cards now include zero-liability policies, but you don't want to wait a single minute to report any activity you don't recognize.

Hand shredding paper

Step 2: File a police report

Once we canceled the card, we went ahead and filed a crime report on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) IdentityTheft.gov page, and took a copy of the report to the police station. The process can be daunting, but it will be worth the effort you put into it to expedite your recovery plan.

Step 3: Flag your credit report

Any level of spending will have an impact on your credit report, so it's best to give your credit bureau a call and request a fraud alert to be placed on your credit file. You want to protect all of the hard work you put into raising your credit score. It's a step-by-step process to recover from getting your identity stolen, but alerting your credit bureau is a good first step. The contact information for a few of the common credit bureaus can be found below:

Equifax: 1-888-766-0008 
Experian: 1-888-397-3742
TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289
Innovis: 1-800-540-2505

Notifying Equifax, Experian and TransUnion also reports to the other two. Innovis needs to be notified separately.

Step 4: Consider a Credit Freeze

A credit freeze gives you maximum control over who has access to your credit – including lenders and creditors. Without your approval, your credit report will be inaccessible. There are a few pros and cons to this step, so give this serious thought before you take action. 

Step 5: Install Anti-virus Protection

In the case of protecting yourself from identify theft for now or for the future, installing an anti-virus software like McAfee's Identify Theft Protection program alerts people when their stolen information is being used online. For many antivirus companies, the main goal is to make sure a customer doesn't get hacked.

Step 6: Change Your Passwords

Changing your passwords might be one of the most important things you can do when your identity has been compromised.  An online software service that I've used for many years is called 1Password. 1Password stores all of your passwords in one place and is only accessible with a super secure password. 

After this experience of having my personal account violated, I've learned to take serious measures when it comes to personal data and how to best protect it, both online and offline. This is especially relevant as I'm heavily engaged online for work.

BECU offers some other great tips for protecting yourself from getting hacked offline and online. 

In 2017 the prevalence of intermediary new-account fraud rose abruptly, reaching as estimated 1.5 million victims, more than 2½ times the previous peak of 500,000 victims in 2015. Also, according to MarketWatch more than one million victims of existing account fraud had an intermediary account opened in their name last year — 200% greater than the previous high.

Ways to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft Offline

  1. KEEP YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY CARD SAFE. Your social security card is one of the most important numbers you need to keep safe. It's a number I memorized since I was little and now it's in a place that only a few people know about. I recommend using a safe or somewhere that's not easily exposed. 

  2. SHRED your bills, credit card offers, and anything that has account numbers associated with it. These will be a target for criminals to open up a false identity using the information provided to them. BECU will be hosting a “ShredEvent” on Saturday, April 20, at three locations in Western Washington. It will be a great way to bring all your old junk to shred. You can even eCycle old electronics. There is a limit of 3 grocery bags or 2 banker boxes for shredding.

  3. PROTECT YOUR WALLET. In other words, make sure you keep an eye on it. Pick pocketing has increased exponentially, leading to identity fraud. It's important you don't keep personal information in your wallet, like your social security card - leave that at home. One of my pro tips as a guy is putting my wallet in the front pocket, which is much harder for it to slip out or get pick pocketed. 

  4. MONITOR YOUR MAIL. Mail theft and package theft has increased to new heights. Among millennials, the victim count jumps to 1 in 3, with 60% reporting that they know of someone who has had packages stolen. One of the ways I monitor the mail activity where I live is with security cameras. They are a great way to record and monitor any suspicious activity, but also it adds security to your place and usually scares off criminals.

Ways to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft Online:

  1. 2-FACTOR AUTHENTICATION. This is the best way to protect yourself from others accessing your account. Just relying on usernames and passwords to secure your online accounts is no longer considered safe. Data breaches occur daily and hackers are always inventing new ways to take over your accounts. Protect yourself by enabling two-factor authentication (2FA). This blocks anyone using your stolen data by verifying your identity through your device. Google also has a 2-Factor Authentication called Google Authenticator

  2. DON'T CLICK SUSPICIOUS LINKS. Okay, so this may be one of the biggest traps most people fall into. If you get a strange link sent to you from either someone you know or don't know, always think twice before clicking it. With the increase in hackers, a miss click can compromise your account. 

  3. CHANGE PASSWORDS OFTEN. People using basic passwords is staggering; don't do it. Rather, use a password management service like 1Password or Lastpass to ensure it's encrypted and your password is unbreakable.

  4. DON'T DISTRIBUTE PERSONAL INFO. Be careful with how you send personal information over text and email. This information can be compromised if you do get hacked, which will increase your chances of getting your identity stolen online. A great way is to password protect documents and supply passwords through secure mediums.

Additional free tools from BECU and other resources to keep you protected:

  1. BECU Shred Event

  2. 5 Immediate Steps to Take if Your Identity is Stolen
  3. Check if you have an account that has been compromised in a data breach. Go to the website haveibeenpwned.com, enter your email address and any usernames you use. BECU recommends this to their employees.

Thank you for reading along, I hope these tips help you stay protected from the evil out there. 

Charles shredding paper

About Charles

Charles Koh is a lifestyle content creator and media consultant based out of Seattle Washington. He founded a Seattle Food & Lifestyle Publication and Media Group called EatSeattle focusing on restaurant news, travel, and reviews. You can find him taking photos for Instagram while enjoying a nice glass of Washington wine and sushi