What is identity theft?
Identity theft refers to any sort of crime, scam, or deception that results in the victim losing some of their personal data. This can include their usernames and passwords for various things, bank details, credit card details, National Insurance numbers, and NHS numbers.
For some people, identity theft is nothing more than a minor inconvenience that just involves changing their username and password. For others, the impact can be devastating. It can cost them thousands of pounds, take months or even years to resolve, damage professional reputations and relationships, harm careers and prevent them from getting credit or taking out a mortgage.
Because of the long-lasting impact of identity theft, it is important to do what you can to reduce the risk of it happening for you.
How can your data and identity be stolen?
Before the internet, would-be identity thieves would sift through people’s rubbish, hoping to find bills, bank statements, or other confidential documents, hoping to find a snippet of information that could help them in their nefarious activities. They might also clone credit cards or steal purses and wallets.
These days, identity theft is much more likely to happen through online activities. One of the biggest ways that scammers work is through phishing. They pose as legitimate companies, mocking up websites or sending emails and text messages that look perfectly authentic and encourage you to enter sensitive information, which of course, goes straight to the scammers to use.
They can also get your information by remotely installing malware onto your computer or device, through insecure WiFi networks and data breaches. Even large organisations such as British Airways are not safe, having suffered a significant data breach by hackers in recent years.
How do you protect yourself against identity theft?
After reading that, you are probably wondering how you can protect yourself from becoming one of the many unfortunate victims of identity theft because cybercriminals and scammers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their methods. The good news is that common sense and awareness are the two key things that will help to protect you. Let’s take a look at some of the steps towards protecting yourself.
- Make sure you have the latest software and security installed on your computer and other devices
As we mentioned above, one of the easiest ways for a cybercriminal to get hold of your sensitive data is through your software. You might be wondering how on earth they can get to your software unless you are letting them in your house, but you would be surprised. Those dodgy-looking downloads and links that we are going to warn you about in the next point often remotely install malware. This can put viruses on your computer or keystroke software, which will record everything that you type – including passwords and pin codes.
Having decent anti-virus and malware software on your computer will not always prevent it, but will go a long way towards doing so. You also need to make sure that you update the security software, as well as your operating system software regularly, so don’t just click off those update reminders. As annoying as they can be, they can protect your computer and therefore your identity. There are also services that will specifically help to protect you. Your internet service provider may offer this, or you can spend some time finding the best technology on the market.
- Be vigilant of scams
Scams and phishing messages are becoming increasingly sophisticated and even the most internet-savvy of people can often be taken in. After all, if you get an email from your bank, you assume it is real. However, the best thing to do is to assume any redirects, emails or messages that ask you to input personal data is fraudulent. Click off the message, search for the organization on a reputable search engine such as Google, and go through and log in that way. If you still are not sure, most places will have a number to call for you to check that any correspondence or links from them are authentic.
- Use strong passwords and change them regularly
We know how annoying it can be to have a different password for everything and trying to remember them is a faff. It can be tempting to have something really memorable – your name, birthday, kids names, pets name, favourite sports team – but this doesn’t just make it easy for you to guess when you have forgotten it, but scammers too. Use a strong password that people are unlikely to guess. The best way of doing this is to use a mixture of upper case and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols. Never write your password down or give it out to anyone and try to change them regularly.
- Regularly check your credit score and report
Every now and then, check your credit report and score through somewhere like Experian or Equifax. If there are any transactions or activity on there that you do not recognise, or your credit score has dramatically dropped, get in touch with them straight away as someone may be taking out credit cards or loans in your name. You can also pause your credit too if you do not need to use it, which means no further forms of credit can be taken out until you unpause it.
- Use reputable websites
Before putting your card details into a website that you have never used before, check it out to make sure it is all above board and legitimate. Check online for reviews and whether or not they have social media pages. If they haven’t, it is worth questioning why. The same with any refund or exchange policies and contract details. If these aren’t there, it is probably a little dodgy. Don’t buy from websites that do not have https:// in their web address. If it is just http, it means they do not have the latest security and are potentially putting your personal information at risk.
Of course, you are never going to be completely guaranteed safety against identity theft because it really can and does happen to even the savviest of people. However, by practicing the steps that we have shared above, you reduce your chances of being caught out.