Consumer Watch: New Year's resolutions and ways to avoid ID theft

Consumer Watch: New Year's resolutions and ways to avoid ID theft

January 14th, 2018 by Ellen Phillips in Business Around the Region
Ellen Phillips

Ellen Phillips

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

(Second of two parts)

Continuing with my (and yours, hopefully) New Year's resolution to protect our identity in 2018 and for years to come, I'm completing the five successful steps with kudos to Readers Digest, among other sources.

-First, remember our cell phones should always be locked with an indistinguishable pass code. While most phones offer a four-digit code, we can make it longer by customizing its length in "Settings." Also, do not ignore software updates; often new security issues have popped up, and the update protects our phone from hackers. Most folks use their phone to bank as well as to store other confidential information, so it's essential the data remains private.

Now's the time to use two-factor authentication. Turn it on via "Settings" for any accounts you want to be secure. Once activated, use a password and a security code as your two "keys," at which point the company you're trying to access will send the code in a text, email or phone call. A thief who doesn't have your cell phone can't get the code and therefore is locked out. For more suggestions, check out fcc.gov/smartphone-security.

-Ditch the debit cards. Okay, so I'm preaching again, but it's exciting during a presentation when I bring up this topic and discover at least several in the audience know better but worrisome to see one or two people actually victimized. It's bad enough for normal debit card shopping but online shopping with a debit card heightens the risk. If a credit card is hacked, not a penny leaves your pocket, but if your debit card gets hacked, kiss your bank account goodbye. (Note: credit card companies have the prerogative to charge their customer $50 but rarely do.)

Probably the most frightening aspect of debit card theft is victims may not have a clue what happened until they receive the bank's monthly statement. Unfortunately, unless the statement arrives within the 48-hour notification period for you to yell, "THIEF, THIEF!" it's too late; your funds are kaput — gone forever (secondary to credit card payment is the use of PayPal, trusted by experts, as well as the newer Apple Pay and Android Pay options which also are pretty trustworthy).

-Back to my continual pleadings for extra caution when online shopping: You should purchase only on reputable, secure sites. Don't touch a single key until you eyeball the URL to be certain it begins with https. Otherwise, get off immediately.

-Never buy a single item when on a public Wi-Fi network; hackers troll coffee shops, restaurants and the like to steal your credit card information and home address — a double whammy. Again, check "Settings" to turn off the "connect automatically" to avoid joining any public network. Because it's always better to be safe than sorry, one of our New Year's resolutions should be to shop online only at home where protections are stronger against hacking.

-Shred all preapproved credit offers. With mail theft on the rise, urgency prevails since all a thief needs to do is accept the pre-approved credit card and spend, spend, spend. Preventive methods are easy. I urge readers to do one or more of the following:

a) Call 888-5-OPTOUT to be removed from financial institutions mailing lists (this works great!);

b) Set up a fraud alert with one of the Big Three — the three credit bureaus — which notifies lenders not to approve new credit without first contacting you. That credit reporting agency will alert the other two to do the same;

c) A credit freeze is perhaps the strongest protection because it prevents anyone from taking out a loan or credit card — and "anyone" also means you! If the consumer/you wants to buy a house, for example, you must unfreeze your credit file. While the move costs $5 to $10 per freeze and unfreeze for Experian and TransUnion, it's free for life with Equifax because of its lack of proper response following the data breach that potentially hurts 145 million consumers.

As I've previously urged, the best solution is to use both the fraud alert and the credit freeze, which I executed after discovering the Equifax victim list included both my husband and me. Of course, it didn't hurt that Consumer Reports highly recommends this option.

Contact Ellen Phillips at consumerwatch@timesfreepress.com.

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