“For safety is not a gadget but a state of mind.”

– Eleanor Everet

You probably hadn’t heard of Equifax until it was revealed in 2017 that over 145 million people—almost half of the U.S. population—had their sensitive information exposed to hackers.

To me it was like discovering that a stranger had stolen my house key, and was making as many copies of it as they wanted.

We’re only just starting to realize how much we rely on technology, and just how vulnerable we can be online. But thankfully, like changing the locks on my house, there are ways to make sure our data isn’t there for the picking.

If you’re worried about your online financial identity, here are some things you need to make sure you’re doing.

1. Use Powerful Passwords

How often do you watch the evening news, and after story about the latest weight-loss craze, a doctor comes on screen to tell us what we’ve heard a million times; that the simplest way to stay healthy is through balanced diet and exercise?

Well, I’m the metaphorical doctor, and I’m telling you that the simplest way to protect yourself online is to use strong passwords.

According to a study by the University of Maryland cyberattacks occur on average once every 39 seconds, and non-secure passwords give hackers a higher likelihood of success.

A strong password is one that is lengthy, difficult to guess, and contains a varied mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters.

Of course, the reason most of us don’t use strong passwords is because they’re so difficult to remember.

But the strongest password in the world won’t do you any good if it’s written on a sticky note by your computer. where anyone passing by can see it.

To help with this, trying using a password managing app. These simple tools can securely store all of your passwords in one place, and many will automatically sign you in to whatever site you’re using.

Start simple. Use powerful passwords!

2. Don’t Leave Your Data Lying Around

We’ve all learned—sometimes the hard way—that sensitive information like passwords and social security numbers should never be given out to strangers.

But what about information that doesn’t seem so important?

Picture this. Someone is trying to log in to your bank account online. They don’t know your password, so they click the ‘Forgot Password’ button and are prompted with a security question.

Now the hacker is faced with a security question, one that you chose based on your personal life. But is that information as well protected as your passwords? Probably not—in fact, that info might be right there for the taking…

…on social media.

Depending on how active you are on social media, it wouldn’t take a hacker very long to find out where you were born, what your mother’s maiden name is, or where you went to high school.

Don’t make this information easy to find.

Go through the security questions for all of your accounts, and compare them to the info listed on your social media. If the answers can be easily found, change the security question or take the information off of your profile.

3. Shred, Shred, Shred!

Our perception of ‘hacking’ is often based on what we see in the movies.

We picture a hooded bad guy, typing feverishly at a keyboard until he shouts something like “I’ve breached the firewall! We’re in!”

That version of hacking might exist, but it’s really difficult.

Most criminals won’t go to all that effort, because they know they don’t have to; something as simple as a misplaced bank statement will give them all the information they need to access your accounts.

This is one of the oldest forms of identity theft, and in 2016 alone the US Postal service received over 60,000 complaints of mail theft.

Those are just the people who realized their documents were stolen, and reported it!

That’s why it’s crucial to shred bank statements, bills, and other papers you aren’t going to be locking up for your personal use later (things such as expense reports, tax forms, etc.). 

Place your scanner and shredder in an area of the house that makes it convenient for you to scan as you shred so the “scan pile” does not stack up.

4. Keep an Eye On Your Accounts

Don’t simply assume that the measures you’ve put in place will protect your online identity.

Be diligent in checking all of your statements for fraudulent charges and suspicious activity. I know it’s tedious, but it’s worth it.

Also be sure to periodically check your junk mail and email spam folder. If you start receiving messages from an institution that you don’t have an account with, someone might have opened an account in your name.

Checking your credit report is another great way to monitor the security of your identity. Many people don’t know they’re entitled to a free credit report every year from the major credit reporting agencies in the United States.

Simply visit www.annualcreditreport.com or call 1-877-322-8228 to request your report. Checking the report will not lower your credit score, and could reveal if someone else has opened up a credit account in your name without your knowledge.

If you see something, say something!

Don’t depend on your bank’s fraud department to contact you if there is a problem. The sooner you can report identity theft to your financial institution or credit bureau, the easier it is to get it resolved.

“Precaution is better than cure.”

– Edward Coke

Much of the vulnerability we feel online comes from ignorance; not knowing when or where an attack could come from.

But it’s important to remember that like most crime, identity theft is often a crime of opportunity.

The fewer opportunities for someone to access your information, the safer you are!

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CLICK HERE to become an Insider! Join my Email Insider Group to receive weekly tips and tricks on finance, education, home buying, insurance, Social Security and everything in between. Byron W. Ellis, CFP®, CLU®, ChFC®, CRPC®, is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional and Managing Director United Capital Financial Advisers, LLC, a Financial Life Management firm. The information contained in this article is intended for information only is not a recommendation, and should not be considered investment advice. Please contact your financial advisor with questions about your specific needs and circumstances.

© Byron Ellis