How secure are your financial accounts and how to protect yourself
It's a new year and we have a new President of the United States, but that doesn't mean that the world has changed all that much. Just like before, identity theft is on the rise, and more people than ever would love to get their hands on your Social Security number and account passwords.
Much of this information is bought and sold on the dark web. Other types of fraud occur when someone digs through your trash or writes down your credit card number. Or maybe a data breach takes place and, through no fault of your own, all of your personal information is exposed for hackers and thieves to find.
According to Rahul Telang, professor of information systems at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College, it may even be worse than that since fraudsters are perpetually coming out with new ways to steal. For example, synthetic ID fraud is a newer type of fraud on the scene. With this type of crime, a fraudster combines public and stolen data to create a synthetical identity that might even pass face recognition.
Regardless of which types of fraud scare you the most, you can take steps now to ensure you are not a victim.
Expert Tips on How to Secure Your Accounts
There are a lot of ways to secure your financial accounts, but it all starts with knowing which accounts you actually have. Financial advisor Olivia Summerhill of Summerhill Wealth says anyone looking to secure their financial accounts should start by organizing their finances.
"The best way to protect their financial identity is to know the location of all accounts," she said, adding that most Americans do not grasp where all of their financial accounts are and what the balances are.
"Starting here will help people make better financial decisions and help them if their accounts or identities were compromised," says Summerhill.
Once you have a list of your accounts and where they are, consider the following steps:
Financial advisor Ryan McPherson, director of Coaching and Financial Education at SmartPath, says you should turn on multi-factor authentication where you can, adding that nearly all banks, credit cards, and other financial institutions have an option to enable this protection.
"A common example of this is receiving a code via text that you must enter into an app or website after you're entered your password," he says. "While this may take a moment longer, it increases the security on your account."
Check Your Credit Report Regularly
McPherson also says to check your credit reports regularly, which you can do for free using the website AnnualCreditReport.com. This tip isn't high-tech and doesn't need to be, but it can make a big difference.
In addition to checking your credit reports with all three credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion — regularly, you should also take a look at your credit card and debit card transactions at least weekly.
"That way you'll catch anything that shouldn't be there," he says.
Use a Password Manager
Use a password manager and stop reusing simple passwords, says McPherson. This message is for anyone, but especially for those who are using the same basic password over and over.
Programs like LastPass do a great job to help you generate lengthy unique passwords for each of your accounts, and they are cheap to sign up for. For example, LastPass has a free version you can try, and the premium version is just $3 per month.
Use a Credit Card for Purchases
Corey Nachreiner of WatchGuard Technologies says you should never pay for online purchases with a debit card, and for good reason. After all, you may be liable for up to $500 in charges if someone fraudulently uses your debit card and you fail to report the fraud within 2 to 60 business days of your statement being mailed to you.
And if you don't report it after that, the Federal Trade Commission says you could lose "all the money taken from your ATM/debit card account, and possibly more; for example, money in accounts linked to your debit account."
By contrast, you can only be liable for up to $50 in fraudulent charges if you pay with a credit card, and the majority of credit cards have zero fraud liability policies anyway.
Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN)
Sean O’Brien, founder of Yale Privacy Lab and Principal Researcher at the ExpressVPN Digital Security Lab, says you should consider a paid VPN service that you can use across your devices, especially when you travel.
With a VPN, you can ensure you're not sharing your information with hackers on a public internet network. A VPN provides this protection because it lets you create a private network while using public internet access.
Enable Account Notifications
Most lending institutions, brokerage firms, and credit card issuers let you set up account notifications that alert you when a withdrawal is made or another transaction takes place. Chip Kohlweiler, vice president of Security at Navy Federal, says to enable notifications on any account you can.
"You can be notified when there’s activity going on in your account, making it a good first step in securing your account," he says. "Many banking apps have customizable notifications that allow you to choose when you want to be notified and how."
Consider Freezing Your Credit
Financial advisor Taylor Jessee of Taylor Hoffman also offers a foolproof way you can make sure nobody can open a new account in your name.
"One of the quickest, easiest, most cost efficient, and effective things to do is to freeze your credit report," says Jessee.
Freezing your credit report prevents and blocks lenders and other financial institutions from viewing your credit file, so it is an easy way to stop fraud before it even happens.
For example, let's say a fraudster steals your identity and tries to open a credit card in your name. If your credit is frozen, the bank will reject the fraudster’s credit card application because they would be unable to pull your credit report to verify your credit history and creditworthiness beforehand.
Fortunately, you have the benefit of freezing each of your credit reports with the three bureaus free of charge and online. If you need to apply for a new account later, you can also "unfreeze" your reports.
You can also look into signing up for credit monitoring.
Sign Up for Identity Theft Protection
Finally, consider signing up for identity theft protection that includes oversight of your accounts. The best identity theft protection services of 2021 will oversee your credit reports and notify you of suspicious activity. They can also monitor the dark web for your information, and they'll even keep an eye out for address changes or public records in your name. As you compare ID theft protection plans, make sure you choose one with plenty of identity theft insurance.
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