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Protecting Your Identity

by W. Michael Bridgeman, CFIRS™, CFP

Identity theft.  We hear about it almost daily.  A retailer is hacked and your personal information may be exposed.  A social media site collects your personal information and then shares it without your permission.  A credit bureau is breached and your personal information is at risk.  Then we all have to wonder: how much of our personal information is at risk? Is it on the dark web?  Is there any way to protect ourselves?

You’ll be relieved to know that the answer is yes, you can protect yourself from identity thieves and others who try to steal your personal, financial and even health information.  Although there are many malicious individuals out there trying to do you harm, you can take action to defend yourself from their malevolent malware.

Follow these guidelines to build your “personal identity defenses”:

  1. Take responsibility.  With all the conveniences we enjoy by having our lives on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and having our financial information readily available on our smartphones – we must think before we share our information.  Identity thieves may call, sometimes posing as bank or government agency officials. Do not give out personal information over the phone unless you initiated the call.
  2. Create better passwords. Use passwords that use a mix of letters, numbers, and special characters.  Do not use your birthday, anniversary, or children’s names as passwords!
  3. Encrypt your smartphone and computer.  Using passwords to lock your phone and computer encrypts the data on the device itself.  A thief cannot unlock these devices without the password, and they cannot circumvent the password to view your data.  Imagine that when you encrypt data you take a piece of paper with your personal information and shred it to pieces.  If someone breaks in to your device without a password, all they see are the shredded pieces of paper. But, when you log in with your password, the data is unencrypted, and the little pieces of paper are magically put back together so you can see it in original form.
  4. Invest in a shredder.  Shred your receipts, credit card offers, bank statements, returned checks, and any other sensitive information before throwing it away.
  5. Avoid public Wi-Fi.  Public Wi-Fi is fraught with dangers.  Hackers know individuals using public Wi-Fi are easy targets for stealing information. This includes airports, hotels, and coffee shops.  They may be convenient, but they are not secure.
  6. Update your software.  Keep your phone’s operating system and apps up-to-date.  Software updates can contain fixes to security flaws!
  7. Sign up for account activity notifications from your bank to notify you of transactions.
  8. Make yourself phishing-proof – do not reply to unsolicited emails asking you to verify personal information, and avoid clicking on suspicious links.
  9. Be on alert for phone calls that could be phishing scams.
  10. Order your free credit report.  You are entitled to one free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus each year.  Order from each individually, or go to www.annualcreditreport.com to receive a consolidated report.  Review the report for inaccuracies and possible identity theft.

If you do become a victim of identity theft, report it to the Federal Trade Commission at www.identitytheft.gov.  You will find useful information on the website to develop a recovery plan and put it into action.  You also should consider placing a freeze on your credit file to prevent thieves from trying to open new accounts in your name.

One last consideration is identity theft insurance. There are many providers that offer to monitor your credit, Social Security number, credit and debit card numbers, etc.  Several companies offer restoration services and expense reimbursement.  You can purchase the insurance online through the provider, or check with your agent and ask if you can add it through your homeowner’s policy.

Unfortunately, we will continue to hear about more, not fewer data breaches.  We know they are going to happen, which is why we must be more vigilant than ever to protect ourselves.  Stay alert, stay cautious, and stay safe!

Michael is the Compliance Officer for Trust Company, and is based in the Raleigh office. He is responsible for assuring compliance with North Carolina banking rules and regulations, federal BSA/AML laws and regulations, and sound fiduciary practices. Michael is a Certified Fiduciary and Investment Risk Specialist™ and a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™. He has over twenty years of experience in the financial and wealth management industry.