October is Cyber Security Awareness Month.
Protecting your personal information, both online and in the physical world, is becoming ever more important, and ever more difficult, in our increasingly connected society. The good news is that there are steps you can take to help reduce the likelihood of becoming a victim of identity theft.
This month, Neiman Marcus disclosed a data breach affecting nearly five million past and present customers. Earlier in the year the Colonial Pipeline shutdown affected millions of people. Recently, Equifax announced a data break affecting more than 100 million people. With all of these breaches, it’s important to check your information regularly to help ensure you are not a victim. If you are a victim, early detection is vital to minimizing the damage.
Using a service like Credit Karma, which is a free app available for smartphones, can give you easy access to your credit scores and activity, and I find it to be a convenient option for the ongoing monitoring of activity on my accounts, as well as receiving notifications when a credit inquiry may be made.
Consider checking on your child’s information as well. The identities of children are often stolen because they are seldom monitored. In those cases, you may not find out until your child applies for a student loan. The good news is, since minors can’t open credit cards, resolution is typically a bit easier than with adults.
Most Americans are finding that their mailboxes are once again being stuffed with those “prequalified” credit card offers. In order to make it easy for you to apply, these offers are often prefilled with a lot of your personal information, making them easy targets for identity thieves. You can now turn a majority of these offers off by visiting www.optoutprescreen.com and opting-out. You can opt to turn them off for 5 years, or forever!
As for the rest of your mail, be sure to shred anything which may have any personally identifiable information. Any mail that you throw away unopened should also be shredded because you don’t know what information it may include.
Most people only send two kinds of mail from home: bill payments and greeting cards. Both of these typically contain a check with your name, account number, routing information, address, and phone number, a lot of what’s needed to steal your identity. What’s more is that we put up a little red flag on our mailboxes which makes it even easier for would-be thieves to find it! Consider bringing any of this type of mail to your post office or using a blue USPS mailbox which may be more secure.
Almost every service provider and vendor you utilize offers paperless billing, and you should consider opting-in to these services. Doing so will help keep sensitive information out of your mailbox, but still can give you secure access online to view and print documents as needed. Secure online payments can eliminate the chances of outgoing checks being stolen as well.
We’re all told to change our passwords frequently, and to use more sophisticated combinations of letters, numbers, and special characters to make it harder for people or bots to break into our systems. The overwhelming number of passwords and their complexity actually dissuade many people from taking the steps they should be to protect their access. Consider using a password manager to keep track of your passwords and do it in secure way.
These services will store your various passwords in an encrypted format and will often require a single master password for gaining access. This limits the number of passwords you actually have to remember, allows you to have unique passwords for different sites, and eliminates the password-post-its or lists you probably have somewhere near your computer.
When creating passwords, remember that they don’t have to be terribly complex to foil most brute force breaches (those where passwords are guessed). The passphrase “IHave3Dogs” would take approximately 27,000 years to hack, but the password “grandma” is hacked in under 2 hours. So, “IHave3Dogs” can be as effective as “1r48OisBP8” but a whole lot easier to remember!
Even though you may have a secure password, you should still change it regularly. The reason is that you likely use similar user names and passwords across platforms. If a breach happens, and that data is stolen from a vendor, the combinations can be tried across other sites to gain access. Changing your passwords on a regular basis can help reduce the risk that a breach in one place could spread to your other services.
We live in an ever-connected world and you need to be vigilant that the conveniences that connectivity offers don’t put you at risk of identity theft. While you may never be able to eliminate the chances, there is plenty you can do to reduce your risk.
Stephen Kyne, CFP® is a Partner at Sterling Manor Financial, LLC in Saratoga Springs, and Rhinebeck.
Securities offered through Cadaret, Grant & Co., Inc. Member FINRA/SIPC. Advisory services offered through Sterling Manor Financial, LLC, or Cadaret Grant & Co, SEC registered investment advisors. Sterling Manor Financial and Cadaret, Grant are separate entities.