Identity theft and identity fraud are growth industries in the United States. The number of identity fraud victims rose 3% in 2015 to its second-highest level in six years, and a total of 41 million Americans were victims of identity theft last year.
The data were reported Tuesday by Bankrate, which also noted that an additional 49 million Americans say they know a victim of identity fraud.
The worse news, perhaps, is that there is virtually nothing that an individual can do to stop the theft of his or her identity. There are however steps people can take to reduce the chances of having their identities stolen or having fraudulent accounts opened in their names.
Bankrate identifies seven things consumers can do to help protect themselves against identity theft:
- Don’t share too much personal information on social media websites. This applies to information such as your exact birth date, your mother’s maiden name, or the name of your favorite pet. Also consider raising your internet privacy settings to the highest level.
- Use and maintain anti-virus and anti-malware software. Try to limit the number of websites to which you give personal financial information. That includes declining invitations to save your password at financial sites.
- Handle financial documents carefully. Shred financial documents you no longer need, don’t just dump them in the trash. One particular item for the shredder are credit card offers containing those blank checks.
- Create strong passwords. Don’t use a dictionary word and don’t simply use “12345” as passwords. Also use different passwords for different online accounts. Only 33% of users surveyed by Bankrate use unique passwords for all their online accounts.
- Use public Wi-Fi networks cautiously. While it might be convenient to do some online banking while sitting in your favorite coffee shop, it is relatively easy for thieves to intercept transmissions over unsecured Wi-Fi connections. Put a strong password on your home network and only use that network or another secured network to transact financial business.
- Beware of phishing expeditions. The practice of sending out fraudulent emails asking for financial information or getting users to click on links or attachments that contain viruses is known as phishing and is a growing threat because the crooks are getting more convincing.
- Monitor your credit score and bank accounts closely. Take advantage of offers for free credit scores and credit reports regularly and check your credit and debit card statements carefully as often as you can. If something should be amiss, it’s far better to catch it sooner rather than after it has poisoned your financial history. According to Bankrate, people under 50 years of age are more likely than older people to check their credit reports regularly.
Methodology: The survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, which obtained telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults living in the continental United States. Interviews were conducted by landline (500) and cell phone (500, including 316 without a landline phone) in English and Spanish by Princeton Data Source from September 15 to 18, 2016. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.