Let’s face it—our personal information is everywhere and criminals are eager to get a hold of it and use it for personal gain. In recent years we can’t escape the endless stream of news reports on data theft from major corporations and retailers. The technology and protocol used to protect data has not kept pace with the ability and determination of thieves to hack networks and steal sensitive personal information. Reports of data theft include information ranging from social security numbers and credit card information to the user names and passwords of online accounts.  This leaves consumers wondering what they can do to protect their sensitive financial data and their identities from these predators. Here are four simple steps you can take to reduce your risk of becoming a victim. 

  • Don’t Store Sensitive Information Online

A current trend in cyber crime is the theft of user names and passwords to consumer’s online accounts. Cyber criminals use this information to sign on to existing accounts to steal information and complete transactions, including tax returns. This theft can go undetected because it takes place inside the perimeters of an already established online account. The best way for consumers to prevent this type of crime is to delete sensitive information after a transaction is complete. If you decide to provide sensitive information within your online accounts, do not allow a website to store your credit card information or social security number. Sometimes a website will make it easy and ask if you would like to store your credit card number for later use, other times you will have to delete the information after the transaction is complete. Deleting your credit card numbers and personal identifying information after transactions will make subsequent transactions a little less convenient; however, it will keep your personal information safe if an online account is compromised. 

  • Provide Less Identifiable Information

Many websites require an online account to be established in order to access website content, even if no financial transactions will take place. Do you ever stop and ask why you need to enter your name and address to read the news, print coupons, or to play an online game? An easy way to protect your personal information in this situation is to provide a nick name and dummy address so that your personal information is not vulnerable. It is also possible to set up an alternate email address for these special situations that will protect the legitimacy and validity of the emails that come into your primary email account. 

  • Consider Cash or a Pre-paid Credit Card

When shopping at a traditional brick and mortar store, paying with cash is still a viable option. Not only will it prevent the theft of credit card information if a retailer’s network is hacked, but it can help you stay within your budget. Sometimes cash is not an option and often time great deals and convenience are accessible when shopping online. If you want to go a step further in protecting yourself in these instances, consider using a pre-paid credit card to make on-line transactions. The use of a pre-paid card will keep your credit or debit card numbers safe if an online retailer is hacked. 

  • Monitor Your Credit Report

Even if consumers take all the right steps and are vigilant with their personal and financial data, they still run a risk that their information and identity can be stolen. Many of these cyber criminal rings are set up outside the United States and are untouchable by local law enforcement. For this reason, the schemes and methods of theft become consistently more sophisticated. It is important to regularly monitor your credit reports for suspicious activity. The Federal government requires that consumers have access to each of their credit reports once a year through www.annualcreditreport.com.

Since it’s unlikely the threat of cyber criminals will diminish in the foreseeable future, it’s up to consumers to become vigilant and take additional steps to protect their finances and identities. Making conscious decisions on when and where you share your personal information is a great place to start.

Guest Contributor: Kimberly Love, AFC®, Zeiders

February 12, 2015

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